Tree-Spotting in the Year's News Forest

A BOMB explodes in Oklahoma City. A gas attack strikes a Japanese subway. Communism reappears in Eastern Europe, while US troops roll into Bosnia and an Israeli prime minister is struck down for his efforts to build lasting peace.

Top headlines of 1995, all - yet considered separately they add up to only part of the story of the year. The rest is contained in patterns that link events across borders and time. During the past 12 months, nations struggled to adapt to accelerating technological change while finding their place in the still-unsettled post-cold-war order. But as 1996 dawns and a new millennium draws ever closer, there is new hope for normal life in places where too many past years began with a bleak dawn of gunfire.

Here, then, is a first pass at what historians might say about the year past, when they sort through the daily trees to try to see a larger forest:

Nineteen-ninety-five was a demanding and difficult time for the globe's complex web of security institutions. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the UN had looked to step up to its long-promised role of peace enforcer; it now appears that role must be rethought, after difficult UN missions in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia.

Regional groups did no better - in some instances, even worse. The European Union's inability to present a united front on Bosnia may go down as one of the larger diplomatic debacles of the 1990s. It took a concerted effort of will by one powerful nation, the United States, to set up a Bosnian cease-fire, with the implication being that 50 years after the end of World War II, NATO seems only marginally less US-dominated than at any time in the alliance's history.

Many nations faced social problems caused by their efforts to make themselves competitive globally. France was the most obvious example, as its public workers launched a paralytic strike against efforts to reduce government benefits that are generous even by the high standards of European social democracy. But the strains of globalization were felt in the US as well, as the continued export of jobs done more cheaply in foreign lands contributed to a shrinkage of the US middle class and growing unemployment among mid-level managers.

The openness necessary for free trade, in some high-profile cases, caused a public backlash: Pressured by groups concerned about safety, US officials pushed back a NAFTA deadline for allowing Mexican trucks greater access to US roads. Similarly, Britain worried about an armada of Spanish fishing boats that tabloids screamed would deplete offshore seafood stocks as soon as EU rules allowed.

Economic forces even helped account for some events that seemed ideological. Communism's sudden return to Russia and Eastern Europe was not the result of a sudden longing for a return to May Day parades and collective farms. Rather, it may have been partly caused by voter disappointment at the lack of widespread improvement in standards of living. In Poland, for instance, former Communist cabinet minister Alexander Kwasniewski positioned himself as a modern candidate of prosperity - allowing him to win the presidency from Lech Walesa, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner who is still an icon in the West.

Some of the most intractable armed conflicts in the world seemed suddenly open to peaceful solutions. On New Year's Day one year ago, a lasting cease-fire in the Bosnia war might have seemed accomplishment enough. A break in the long troubles of Northern Ireland, and historic progress in the Middle East, would have seemed too much to ask. Yet, despite the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November, Israelis and Palestinians continued their march toward a measure of Palestinian self-rule. If a peace pact can be hammered out between Israel and Syria, as seems possible at the start of 1996, then truly monumental change will have occurred in a region long considered a cockpit of crisis.

As for the situation in Northern Ireland, every day the current cease-fire holds strengthens the constituency for a final end to Protestant-Catholic fighting. The Irish peace process is only inching along, but already both the British and the IRA have gone further towards accommodation than they have dared to do for decades. Occasional American intervention, despite the annoyance of Britain, has appeared a positive development. Certainly President Clinton's fall trip to Belfast was a cathartic moment of normality for a population long cowed by the hard men of both sides. "Your day is over," Mr. Clinton said of the gunmen. Perhaps this year will prove that to be so.

Ironically, America itself took little notice of the president's November Irish foray. News instead focused on the first shutdown of the federal government, per the continuing White House-Congress budget standoff. But Clinton's rapturous Belfast reception will surely be, to him, one of his most memorable days as president. And it shows that to much of the world the US remains a symbol of power, and hope, even while Americans themselves grumble about economic weakness and an incompetent federal government.

Not that anyone has had to look hard lately to find reasons to dislike Washington. The inglorious budget train wreck was one of 1995's longest-running domestic news stories. But this less-than-epic struggle might more properly be seen as one element of a two-year tale: the struggle for America's political soul. The GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 seemed to indicate a popular desire for less government and a devolution of power to the states. Was the vote a mandate or have Republicans gone too far? Stay tuned. One of the biggest stories of 1996 will occur on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

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