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Milestones for Peace

In an era when military might is still often used to either split up a country (NATO in Yugoslavia, for instance) or force it to stay united (Russia in Chechnya), it's worth noting two peaceful but necessary land transfers taking place between sovereign nations.

Next month, the United States hands over the Panama Canal to Panama, while Portugal gives back the tiny enclave of Macau to China after more than 400 years of rule.

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Both transfers end a worn-out chapter from the days of Western imperialism, when the flag followed a nation's business interests and a superiority of arms implied a natural right to rule.

These milestone events in December follow the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong to China and the 1992 exodus of the US from its largest overseas military bases, located in the Philippines, a former US territory.

Then, of course, this week we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which led to the peaceful reunification of Germany and then, two years later, the independence of many nations as the Soviet Union imploded from a failure of communism.

Correcting historic mistakes or living up to treaty obligations was not easy in handovers of Macau and the canal. But careful negotiations paved the way.

For the US, there's still some anxiety over whether Panama or a foreign power might someday choke off ship traffic in the canal for political purposes.

But the canal is much less critical for the US economy these days. And Panama has a self-interest in maintaining the waterway's commercial role. The US also retains the right to intervene if the canal's security or its neutrality are ever threatened.

For Portugal, giving up Macau, which lies near Hong Kong and has only 430,000 residents, will be much easier. The enclave has become crime ridden, with Chinese gangs, smugglers, and gambling joints. The transfer comes just in time to close out the millennium, for the Portuguese were the first Europeans to sail into the Far East nearly 500 years ago. Now they will be the last European power to leave.

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That both transfers of land are happening calmly should be a marker for the 21st century that peace can have more victories than war.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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