1991: Looking Ahead To New Landmarks

THE old year departs on a somber note. On the world scene, 1990 was a time of partially fulfilled hopes. Eastern Europe's lunge toward democracy, the Soviet Union's rapid liberalization, South Africa's swerve from apartheid - such events seemed remarkable turning points. But, oh, how hard to make the full turn. Upbeat beginnings became mired in the complexities of building new alliances and breaking old habits. In 1991, this process of leaving the old for the new will continue. It hasn't been halted. Most people in the evolving societies of the world remain convinced that the road toward democratic politics, an economic system that allows for individual initiative, and a world order that emphasizes peaceful solutions to conflict is the right one.

In 1991, we hope to see some landmarks along that road:

A wider realization in Eastern Europe that the deprivations of the current transition from communism will be worth it. People can travel who used to be prisoners in their own homelands. They're free, generally, to speak their minds and worship as they please. Even the closing of old, outmoded factories isn't all negative. Jobs will be lost, but newly created jobs will have firmer economic foundations.

The Soviet Union's release from the clutches of its own ``empire.'' The yearning for tight central control over submissive republics looks to a past of inefficiency, backwardness, and repression. Mikhail Gorbachev surely perceives this, despite his recent rightward leanings. The loss of a few independence-bound republics shouldn't cause him to abandon his whole reformist thrust. The real business of Soviet leadership should be the fostering of private business and of an order built on economic reality, not bankrupt ideology.

South Africa's fuller emergence into the post-apartheid era, impelled by the majority of blacks and whites who want a society where individuals can pursue happiness and live in peace. A minority, impatient to restore the past or summon the future, will agitate for upheaval. The government can help defuse that agitation by discarding all racial laws and providing such crucial services as better education and impartial police protection.

The nations of the Middle East being constrained, in the wake of the Gulf crisis, to come to grips at last with their central conflict. Israel's right to be free from attack and the Palestinians' right to govern themselves are not irreconcilable - if all sides approach negotiations determined to reach agreement. The United States will have a role in making those negotiations happen.

In Latin America, a solidifying of democratic structures and a redoubled commitment to economic growth. Just a year after elected governments took power in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Panama, and other countries, many governments are under pressure from restive generals. Meanwhile, economic reforms are in danger of being sidetracked by social unrest arising from austerity and market-oriented programs. Leaders must find the vision and courage to remain steadfast in leading the region through this transitional era into a new day. The world community, led by the US, can assist through enlightened trade and debt-relief policies.

A drawing together within the United States, in the face of tremendous responsibilities abroad and difficult times at home. This includes a revival of bipartisanship in Washington as Americans weather a recession and head for yet another round of wrestling with the federal budget deficit - as well as deficits at most other levels of government. Instincts and habits may tend toward political skirmishing, but if there was ever a time for what Lincoln called the ``better angels of our nature'' to hold sway, it's 1991.

This list touches the most obvious landmarks, and there's no assurance any will come into view as hoped. But there is the possibility. Hope in human affairs has a purpose: It sets a direction for energies. And if it's founded on something more than sentiment - on reason, intelligence, and prayer - it can have power.

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