This has been a year of extremes. It began with the sad spectacle of the U.S. president’s sexual escapades and verbal gymnastics exposed to international ridicule, and draws to a close under the shadow of millennial terrorism and computer-induced chaos. There were long-anticipated moments of peace, and equally depressing outbreaks of war. In short, it has been a year much like any other — only more so.

The sight of U.S. President Bill Clinton humiliated on videotape for all-too-human foibles — and appallingly poor judgment — is likely to be the single most enduring image of the year. The impeachment trial of the president, and its aftermath, has reminded the world that the United States, the most powerful nation in history, continues to move according to its own, often inscrutable, rhythms.

Remarkably, Mr. Clinton did not give up, and the world may be better for that. The continuing progress in Middle East peace talks and the breakthrough between Israel and Syria owes much to his efforts. Much credit also should be given to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was elected to office this spring after promising his people to resume the peace drive inaugurated by his mentor, Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish zealot. Mr. Barak will have to work even harder now that he has lost the counsel of Jordan’s King Hussein and Morocco’s King Hassan, two brave leaders committed to reconciliation in the region who died this year.

The people of Ireland also have reason to give thanks. Their leaders have shown great courage by choosing to pursue peace as well. The formation of the suprapartisan Northern Irish Cabinet came early, but it is the best Christmas present anyone could hope for.

There was a new beginning in Indonesia, too, where the first truly democratic elections were held in decades. The decision to let the East Timorese people finally decide their own fate will be remembered as a defining moment in the history of both Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Former Indonesian President B.J. Habibie, derided by many, deserves credit for authorizing the vote. When the accounting is done, those who plunged the province into chaos and terror must be held responsible, too, but that is far less likely to happen.

Sadly, the rampages in East Timor were echoed elsewhere around the world. Russia has once again embarked on a Chechen misadventure. Thus far, it seems to be avoiding the fate of its previous incursion, which ended in disaster after four bloody years, but the tide can quickly change. The conflict between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir erupted again, and the world held its breath as two nuclear powers slugged it out for the first time in history. And in Kosovo, the Balkan tinder box finally exploded in an orgy of violence.

The lessons of the Kosovo War are still being debated. The strategists are arguing the merits of air power, while pundits pontificate over the definition of humanitarian war. But Kosovo’s relationship to broader principles of human rights is beyond challenge. A marker has been set by the NATO intervention. The international protection of human rights was also assisted by a landmark decision by Britain’s Law Lords. They ruled — twice, in fact — that former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet could be held responsible for atrocities committed during his rule. Tyrants now know that they cannot hide behind the fiction of sovereign immunity for manifest violations of human rights.

Human-rights issues surfaced in the trial of Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish leader convicted by a Turkish court of committing terrorist acts and sentenced to death. It is unlikely that he will face the gallows since that would prejudice Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. And as the most recent summit made clear, the EU is Europe’s future. The union will proceed with bold plans to stretch its borders eastward and extend its competence to matters of defense and foreign policy.

The only dark spot on that hopeful design is the euro, the value of which has plunged since it was inaugurated almost a year ago. Economists say the currency is only reaching its real value, having been overvalued at its foundation. Perhaps, but the euro’s slide could represent wider unease felt in the international economy. The failure to launch the next round of trade negotiations in Seattle reflects growing concern about the rules of the international economy, about how they are made and whether they are fair to everyone. This uncertainty exists amid a technology-driven boom that has taken stock markets to historic highs. That is yet another extreme to ponder as 1999 comes to a close.

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