Surveying mankind: How to preserve this fortunate age

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website


As I leave my post as world affairs correspondent for the BBC News website, I will take this advice from the 18th Century sage Dr Samuel Johnson, in his poem The Vanity of Human Wishes:

"Let observation with extensive view,

Survey mankind from China to Peru..."

Image caption,
Would Johnson have seen the Iraq invasion as an unreasonable "stubborn choice"?

Nearly 40 years of surveying humankind allow me now a small celebration, insofar as parts of our world have emerged into a relatively fortunate age.

To judge from Dr Johnson's own fears, it will be a difficult task to maintain this good fortune where it is established and spread it where it is not.

"How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice," he notes.

He proclaims that the pursuit of gold "Crowds with crimes the records of mankind". True today, as ever.

The recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt remind us that there is a way to go in many parts of the world.

There is the unfinished business in Iraq (would Dr J have regarded the invasion there an example of reason not guiding the stubborn choice?).

The war in Afghanistan goes on, terrorism strikes, finances totter and new crises might break out at any time and in any place.

Nuclear weapons remain. Global warming looms. And those peoples still unable to live freely, securely or in nationhood will not accept any optimistic European observation and will regard this not as an "extensive" but a narrow view.

Worst memory

However, I need hardly go through the list of better things. My generation was lucky. Our parents achieved their ambition.

There has been no major war in Europe. Wise diplomacy turned Germany and Japan from arsenals into workshops.

We turned out neither red nor dead, though there were nasty happenings along the way. I remember the Hungarian refugees who came into our small coastal town in England in 1956 and saw for myself the fighting in the Balkans in the 1990s.

The Cold War ended with a whimper and reporters rushed from country to country trying to keep up with the spreading jubilation.

Apartheid collapsed and the world smiled.

One major advance was the demise of military governments in Latin America. My worst memory as a reporter was of a teenage boy in El Salvador sobbing and praying as he clawed at the red earth on a dirt track where his elder brother had been buried by the soldiers who shot him.

We have also witnessed the economic emergence of what we in Europe still call the Far East, meaning millions lifted from poverty.

Northern Ireland has achieved a settlement. Nobody was predicting that when I began to report from there in the bad year of 1972.

Lessons of war

Prediction being the least successful part of journalism, I make none.

Journalists ("weekly scribblers" according to Sam Johnson) and pundits are usually taken by surprise (Cold War ending, financial crisis beginning etc) and it is an odd truth that the same "experts" who failed to predict something are then wheeled out to explain why it happened.

The same with diplomats. They rarely control events and struggle to contain them.

It is now not so very long before the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. That war, too, came as a surprise. The lessons to be learned from it will perhaps help arm us against disasters in our own futures.

There are at least three, I think.

  • Clarity of commitment. Britain, for one, got dragged into that war because it had neither a policy for staying out nor one for going in. It gave a half-commitment to France that eventually entangled it in a wartime alliance. Its support for Belgium was at first vague but then became decisive. After a second world war, Britain and its allies did learn that firmness of purpose was needed and the results showed. But are we now too diffuse in our commitments? If Nato fights in Afghanistan, where will it go next?
  • Challenge conventional wisdom. Germany was the great fear before World War I. Could it have been contained or headed off by means other than war? In our day, Iraq was a bogeyman. Yet the governments of the US and UK did not challenge the conventional wisdom of their intelligence agencies. What might happen over Iran?
  • Know what you are getting into. The ignorance about modern warfare in all governments before World War I was astounding. Yet Afghanistan, too, has surprised and shocked by the intensity of the fighting. If you study what is ahead, you might prepare better or pause longer.

Last word to Dr Johnson, an enduring warning about financial recklessness: "How nations sink, by darling schemes oppressed."

On Wednesday Paul Reynolds reflects on the new experience, for a radio and television correspondent, of working as a journalist in the online age.