April 20, 1999
The Wisdom Fund

Around the World of Diplomatic News in 40 Years

by Mohsin Ali O.B.E.

Presented before the English Speaking Union of the United States in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, New York City, Greenwich March 18 - 24, 1999.

I belong to the old school of British journalism, which was wittily summed up by the British poet Humbert Wolfe thus:

"You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God, the British journalist.
But seeing, what the man will do
unbribed, there's no occasion to."
There are also dramatist Tom Stoppard's pertinent observations: "A foreign correspondent is someone who flies around from hotel to hotel and thinks that the most interesting thing about any story is the fact that he has arrived to cover it..."

"I'm with you on the free Press. It's the newspapers I can't stand," he said.

And, Arnold Wesker was quoted as saying "A journalist is somebody who possesses himself of a theory and lures the truth towards it."

But more seriously, no matter how imperfect things are, if you've got a free Press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.

I have been given a generous 30-minute deadline -- that is 45 seconds per year to go AROUND THE WORLD OF DIPLOMATIC NEWS IN 40 YEARS. So let us begin our journey in these stages:

- How English has become the language of the Internet and cyberspace.
- What makes for good reporting and the problems of a foreign correspondent.
- The early post World War II era during which I learned the craft of journalism.
- The ever changing political and economic world, against the background of independence movements, arms control, terrorism, the collapse of Soviet communism and the ensuing ghastly ethnic conflicts, like the Bosnia holocaust.
- Finally, the challenges of the 21st century.
Several of my observations may be repetitive but what is not in life? Much of what I say will pose questions and give no answers because often there are no easy and immediate solutions.


However, first things first. Let us recall and praise what your great institution stands for. Your body was conceived in England in 1918 as the guns of the great World War fell silent. All was quiet on the Western Front.

Seeking to continue the alliance forged between Britain and the United States during the war William Howard Taft was asked to form and serve as president of a national organization which would "draw together in the bond of comradeship the English-speaking peoples of the world". Today there are some 90 branches in the U.S. and 30 in other countries.

The English Speaking Union, recognizing that English is a binding world-wide language, has as its mission to provide projects in instruction and conversation for those, specially the young, seeking to learn English as a second language. Your organization has much to be proud of. See what wonders the English language has performed, specially in this turbulent century.

The English Speaking Union was close to the heart and mind of Winston Churchill, author of the monumental history of the English Speaking Peoples and much more.

Said Churchill: "My mother was American and my ancestors were officers in Washington's army. I am myself an English Speaking Union."

At school he flubbed the two cornerstones of British education -- the classics and mathematics. "By being so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English...Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence -- which is a noble thing," he was to write with glee later.

In a sterner mood he declared: "I would make all boys learn English; and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honor and Greek as a trust. But the only thing I would whip them for is not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that."

Imagine what would have been the course of World War II had Roosevelt and Churchill not spoken a common language despite Oscar Wilde's witty admonition that nothing divides the American and British people more than the English language.

Even more startling for posterity would have been the consequences, if the U.S. Congress, in its early years, had not by a slim majority adopted English instead of German as the official language of its proceedings.

In his celebrated speech to the Congress in December 1941, Churchill said with his usual felicity of phrase, "I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own." Of such stuff is history made.


Today, English is the umbilical card that continues to bind Britain to her Indian "Jewel in the Crown" and to her former colonial territories from North America to Africa, South and South-East Asia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific and Hong Kong. I am confident it will be the lingua franca of the INTERNET and CYBERSPACE of the 21st century.

Now please focus for a few minutes on just one English-speaking country, India. I was born in the beautiful Doon valley in the foothills of the snowcapped Himalayas.

India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, addressing the nation at 'the stroke of the midnight hour', proclaimed India's independence on August 15, 1947. In a radio speech to the nation in English marking the end of the British Raj, nearly two centuries of British rule, Nehru (educated at Harrow, Winston Churchill's old school, and Cambridge University) spoke of the new India's 'tryst with destiny."

Fifty years on English continues to make immense contributions to education; scientific, medical and technological research; culture and economic development on the sub-continent of India and Pakistan and also in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and Burma, Malaysia and Singapore. And Hong Kong too.

India's democratic and secular Constitution and legal codes are written in English. The Indians have annexed the most precious and subtle possession of their former rulers. They have mastered the 'tone of voice' that, not so long ago, subjugated them.

Aldous Huxley considered Nehru's autobiography to be one of the most beautifully written books of his time. British critics were lyrical about the prose of Nehru's voluminous Glimpses of World History written while he was a political prisoner.

The prayer meetings of Mahatma Gandhi, apostle of non-violence and the father of India's modern freedom, often included the singing of his favorite English hymn, John Newman's moving "Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead thou me on..."

India with a population of almost a billion is the world's largest democracy. Democracy on such a scale is one of the wonders of the world. That is the secret of India's unity in diversity; the main reason for confidence that democracy will survive betrayal by its politicians.

And then there is a fiercely independent Indian news media.

Today, upper class Indians who used to school their children in the United Kingdom now look to American universities. Over 350,000 immigrated between 1985 and 1995. There are now a million Indian-Americans and they have begun to assert themselves politically, as befits one of the country's most affluent immigrant groups.

The great worldwide Indian Diaspora communicates in English. Its writers like R. K. Narayan (Graham Greene's favorite novelist), Nirad Chaudhuri, V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and now Arundhati Roy have enriched the language of Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Jane Austen, Kipling and T.S. Eliot.

Gone are the days of the Indian babu (clerk) who in Queen Victoria's reign sent this pleading note to his British officer: "Sir, please give your obedient servant a fortnight's leave because the hand that rocked his cradle has kicked the bucket."

Well before India's 100th independence anniversary in 2047 one of the country's most valuable products for export and for its huge home market could be English language books, magazines and the like.

In the memorable final paragraphs of E.M. Forster's prophetic classic A Passage to India, Dr. Aziz in a rage shouts to Fielding that they 'shall be friends' but only after the British quit India. "Why can't we be friends now?, said the Englishman. "It's what I want. It's what you want." But their horses didn't want it -- they swerved apart; the earth didn't want it... and the sky too said no, not yet.

The Indian 'charka" (wheel) of friendship, fostered by freedom and democracy and the English language, has been spinning for 50 years. So the Azizs, Fieldings, Moores, Turtons and Burtons all want to be friends speaking their common tongue, English.

So with this tribute to your great institution let us turn to the media on my journey in English.


Trust is the single most important thing in the life of a reporter. I used the word reporter advisedly because it is the best way a journalist should describe himself or herself. The profession column in my old British passport just said 'Reporter.' It told a simple and unvarnished tale, as all stories should.

The trust I spoke of is the trust between sources and the reporter, the correspondent and his editorial colleagues, and the writer and his readers, listeners and viewers. Take away the element of trust and little remains.

What makes for good reporting?

First, let us define the framework of our discussion. Journalism is not a science; it is not an art. Is it even a profession in the real sense of the word? I think it is more of a craft. One really learns it on the job as one goes along. It needs self-discipline. No one can teach one news sense but one can work on it if one has aptitude for it, as with flying.

To this basic essential must be added the quality of writing simply. Little concerns me more than reporters who strive for cliches and special effects. They strain for a 'colorful lead.' They use difficult, long words, when the simple, short Anglo-Saxon word is the best and most effective.

We see such awful words repeatedly used by diplomatic and political correspondents as pundit, mantra, campaign rhetoric, arcane, and conventional wisdom. Alas, these pompous phrases come up daily in several stories in nearly all the serious newspapers.

Humility is another vital characteristic that a good reporter should develop. Here like a fool I rush in where angels fear to tread. Diplomatic, political and parliamentary correspondents have a terrible tendency to imagine themselves to be something special just because they are reporting from the White House, the State Department, Congress and the Pentagon in this country and in London from Number 10 Downing Street, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Parliament.

Many begin to give themselves airs. They think that mere association with cabinet ministers, the politically influential and industrial barons accords them some special status. I have known some excellent reporters who have developed illusions of grandeur by thinking that because they report on world affairs they make government policy.

There is no mystique about the reporting of international affairs. It should be no different then reporting any other story. It must have the facts that make it news worthy, the lead must be active, short, simply written and well sourced. Rudyard Kipling's five W's must be answered straight away -- who said it, when, where, why and what did he or she say.

Its news value lies in who said it. If it is the president saying it, it is more important than the same thing being said even by the Secretary of State.

Sourcing is very important because one must let the reader and listener know the strength of the story and the value of the news. Moreover, it safeguards the integrity of the correspondent, his or her newspaper and the TV and radio news channels using it.

If a government or person is later found to be lying then the news organization is covered and the responsibility for doing so rests with the source. This also protects the reporter from the growing menace of 'disinformation'.

A cautionary note: in all this I am really talking about the western news media. Much of this cannot apply to news media in totalitarian societies, dictatorships and many developing countries.

To this must be added the vital principles of relative objectivity, speed, accuracy and balance.

Some of the best foreign correspondents I have known started as sports reporters. They learned that the first thing to get right are basic facts like the final baseball, football, tennis or golf scores.

Now to a fundamental dictum of C.P. Scott, the great Editor of the famous Manchester Guardian. He said "facts are sacred, comment is free." Scott told his reporters to write their news stories but leave comments to the editorial pages so that the reader first gets the hard news and then makes his own judgment.

He could then turn to the OP-ED pages knowing full well that these were personal, subjective comments and interpretations. Alas, over the years I have seen an increasing tendency, even in the most reputable newspapers, of correspondents giving value judgments without making clear that these are their personal opinions.

Now, daily you can read stories with facts and comments so intermixed that you can hardly differentiate between the two. Above all a correspondent must keep his own views and prejudices to himself or herself. These should not creep into their copy. One must daily train oneself to be apolitical. Because one personally does not agree with something it should not prejudice one's reporting. Sadly, this has become a thing of the past.

There are many stories where the whole lead is an interpretative one and without any of the key quotes on which the story should have been based. This does not mean that a good correspondent should not explain things simply and put the story in its proper perspective. But explanation should not reflect a reporter's personal prejudices.

Let us now turn to definitions.

I well recall that even during World War II, the great news agency Reuters -- which I proudly served for over 30 years -- had a rule according to which Germany, Italy and Japan were not to be referred to as the "enemy" unless one was quoting an official communique, a parliamentary statement or a speech by Churchill, etc. Was this taking objectivity too far? I think not, because it is the principle that matters.

Today, for example, a good news agency does not use the words "terrorist" or "freedom fighter" unless it is quoting someone or from a statement. It uses a neutral word like "insurgent" for one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. The enemy of today is an ally of tomorrow. Witness Rabin and Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn. That is why I constantly stress the importance of not taking sides, solid sourcing and accurate quotes.

In the same context, journalists must beware of being used by contacts -- government ministers, spokesmen, diplomats and other sources. There are endless examples of disinformation over Libya, Iraq, Iran, China, Vietnam, the 1956 Suez invasion etc, etc.

Good reporters must be acutely conscious of never comprising their organization's or their own personal integrity. An independent media organization should strictly ban all free trips, entertainment and the like for its staff.

We are at the crossroads of international news reporting. The explosion of mass media communications via satellites and the instant and prolonged live coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial and the Clinton impeachment and far flung events on TV (like the funerals of Princess Diana and Mother Theresa and the missile attacks on Iraq, the Sudan and Afghanistan) have created both new opportunities and great problems for the press of the western world.

The able American columnist Richard Harwood recently wrote a penetrating piece on the conflicts within the media between the corporate owners and the working press. I summarize his main points:

"A major structuring of news operations is now going on.

"Marketing executives are working as partners with editors in the development of news products to maximize market penetration and profits."

Critics say this puts the wolves in bed with the lambs and violates a precious canon of modern journalism: that newsrooms should be autonomous, free of control from the counting house.

This struggle for newsroom autonomy -- half a loaf or all of it -- has been going on since the 1930s. Before that journalists virtually took it for granted that their marching orders came from on high.

The industry had long been dominated by autocratic individuals and family dynasties -- Bennetts, Hearsts, Pulitzers, Scrippses, Ocheses, Sulzbergers, etc. They created newspapers in their own images as did the press Barons of Fleet Street in London. They defined their scope and range.

They chose the newspaper's friends and enemies, controlled its political policies and meddled in every aspect of the business, particularly in issues of content.

By the 1930s these American autocrats were nearly all dead and their heirs, in most cases, less formidable. The country was in the economic turmoil of the great depression and a rift was opening between newspaper management and labor.

Opposition to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal was almost universal among newspaper publishers; nine out of 10 papers editorially took a Republican line. Among working journalists the reverse was true. There was a similar situation in pre-World War II Britain.

I am struck by the fact that our American Constitution does not guarantee objectivity of the press, nor is objectivity obtainable in a subjective world. Thus the tantalizing multi-trillion dollar question now is: who gets to color the news?

Here is a shocking, sobering decades old quote (see Jerry Spence's "Give Me Liberty!") of John Swinton, an eminent New York journalist:

"There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know before hand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with...If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before 24 hours my occupation would be gone...The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth; to lie outright; to pervert; to vilify; to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, so what folly is this toasting an independent press? We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are jumping jacks -- they pull our strings -- we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men."

Anyhow, today most news organizations are owned by big corporations with multiple economic interests. In many cases, CEOs and other top figures in communications conglomerates have little intellectual interest in the news or editorial activities of the newspapers in their empires.

News content is determined by local market demographics, not by edicts from corporate headquarters. The market discourages radicalism and risk-taking of the kind that family owners had often been willing to accept and it currently accounts for much of the blandness, gossip and scandal of salacious, sleazy yellow-type 'show biz' contemporary journalism.

My favorite poet T.S. Eliot put it wisely when some 50 years ago he intuitively asked:

"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

Now let me recall the tumultuous events of the immediate post war period that I reported on. At the end of the war I was demobilized as an Air Force Flight Lieutenant and joined Reuters in London in 1948.

These were the exciting post-war days of the first Labour government of Clement Attlee which came into office following Churchill's stunning election landslide defeat. In Britain the centuries old entrenched class system was slowly beginning to break up.

We were in the post-nuclear age though the full realization of this had not dawned on us. The map of the world was beginning to change.

Yalta permitted Stalin to take over eastern Europe. Only the Berlin airlift stopped him from incorporating the whole of the divided city into the then communist East Germany.

On the other side of the globe, Mao's Red Army was on its famous long march and Chiang Kai-shek's forces were fleeing to Taiwan. The British, French, Dutch and Portuguese empires were beginning to decline and would shortly wind up. Colonial Asia specially was in ferment from the Indian sub-continent to Indonesia and French Indochina. Indeed, the balance of power was starting to change.

So not only did we have to learn journalism but had to adapt ourselves to a totally changing world with all its turmoil and political, economic and social convulsions and new ideas and definitions.

A young person coming into western journalism today finds relatively stable values with standardized and accepted rules of reporting. But we had to devise some of these in the immediate post-war period when great economic and social changes were taking place in western Europe through the Marshall plan.

We had to learn the language of the nuclear age and new words resulting from the 'cold war' and the 'iron curtain' to describe the fast developing confrontation between the West and Stalin's Soviet Union.

In the arms buildup and the protracted, complex disarmament negotiations we had to explain the meaning of such terms as nuclear throw-weight, NATO infrastructure, flexible response, and the 'trip wire' theory. Most of this has now passed into common usage.

With the territories of the imperial powers coming under great strain we had to cover the independence movements of the decolonization era.

India and Pakistan were born as new nation states in the most terrible of blood baths with millions of refugees. Independence also came to Burma, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and much later to Malaysia and Singapore.

The British unilaterally gave up their Palestine mandate and the state of Israel was established amid the first Arab-Israeli war. The Middle East would never be the same again. The Arab-Israeli conflict was endless. The French fought a bloody seven-year war in Indochina and later in Algeria and had to give them up as they did Morocco and Tunisia.

Britain was forced to leave its vital strategic and communications base in the Suez Canal zone and later had to withdraw from the oil-rich Gulf. The U.S. began to fill the vacuum there.

The whole geostrategic situation was bedeviled by Washington's refusal to allow the seating of communist China in the United Nations, the ensuing Korean and Vietnam wars and the Arab-Jewish conflict. The awakening in Africa was yet to come.

Journalism is full of bad, good and indifferent gossip: so talking of China, it is reported that Mao was fond of a little set speech he would make to visitors: "Our fathers were indeed wise. They invented gun-powder but used it only for fireworks. Finally, they invented the compass, but took care not to use it to discover America."

And if that amused you please listen to this one. President Nixon during his historic Peking meeting with Mao is impressing on him the political stability of the United States as shown by the peaceful and quick constitutional transfer of power when Lyndon Johnson was sworn in on Air Force One immediately after President Kennedy's assassination in Texas. Nixon, leaning towards the chain-smoking Mao, whispers in conspiratorial fashion: "Chairman, can you imagine what would have happened if Nikita Khrushchev had been assassinated?" Mao pondered and laughingly replied: "Mr. President, of one thing I am certain. Mrs Khrushchev would not have married Mr. Aristotle Onasis."

As Britain (which had lost a mighty empire and not found a new role) and France weakened militarily, economically and politically, the U.S. took on the leadership of the western or 'free world.' Mr. John Foster Dulles, the U.S. Secretary of State, firmly practiced the Mr. X (George Kennan) doctrine of the containment of communism. He set up the Baghdad pact (later CENTO), SEATO and ANZUS. The containment circle or noose was being tightly drawn around Moscow and its then ally communist Peking.

We also reported on other developments like the ousting of the powerful Ango-Iranian oil company, a state within a state, by Iranian prime minister Dr. Mohammed Mussadeq; the crises in Poland; the Soviet tanks crushing the Hungarian revolution; the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Israel, France and Britain; and the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia. In the western hemisphere the charismatic Fidel Castro was establishing a communist bridgehead in Cuba.

Later came the ferocious Iraq-Iran war which saw the use of chemical weapons, the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, the conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador and, in a different context, the Falklands war.

Decolonization further spread to Africa with the Gold Coast becoming Ghana, the first British territory to become fully independent in Africa. The Organization of African Unity was born and later we witnessed the independence of Namibia, which was ruled as the old League of Nations mandate by the white-minority South African government. And you all well know about the release of Nelson Mandella, the dramatic end of apartheid and the advent of black-majority rule in South Africa.


I hope I have given you a glimpse of the astounding convulsions that have shaped our present-day world and put into an historical perspective current world affairs, which you follow closely.

The impotence of the United Nations left the fate of the world in the hands of the two super-powers until the sudden implosion of the Soviet empire and the collapse of world communism. The old super-power relationship and the arms control process is a long story. I covered the disarmament talks from the start and since these dealt with highly technical and complex issues it is best to take them up in our question session.

So it would save time if I tried to answer any questions you may have on such phenomenal events as the Afghanistan war which helped hasten the collapse of the USSR and the ethnic conflicts in its wake; the freedom of east European countries; the Gulf war; the ghastly Bosnia holocaust -- which to the Munich-like appeasement and shame of the U.S., European Community, NATO and the U.N. -- is allowed to 'simmer'. And now we have the brutal Kosovo killings.

You may also want to ask about the current dangerous impasse in the Israeli-PLO Wye River agreement and religious fundamentalism and extremism of the right and left as witnessed in the Middle East and Northern Ireland.

However, last Easter brought us good news: the Irish peace agreement. It is only a first step but an hopeful one. God knows, Ulster truly needs peace and civility after decades of religious bigotry and killings.

As the great Irish poet W B Yeats said:

"Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world;
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
And everywhere
The ceremony of Innocence is drowned..."
And, "Cast a cold eye on life, or death.
Horseman, pass by."
Today the fast spreading consumer societies of the industrialized world have taken a giant leap into an interdependent global economy.

Last year a total of $1.3 trillion (trillion) were transacted by world currency traders per day. $83 trillion is estimated to be the size of the global financial market in the year 2,000. There was a 1,500 percent increase in world trade in the past 40 years, while I was reporting on world news.

With the end of the Sterling Area, of which Britain was the banker, the dollar became mighty. After much hesitation Britain joined the European Economic Community (now the much enlarged and powerful European Union.)

The United States economic influence was soon challenged by an Arab oil embargo, OPEC and above all the rise of Japan as an highly competitive industrial exporter and investor.

All this was complicated by the bitter and inconclusive North-South dialogue between the rich industrial nations and the poor and weak countries of the non-aligned movement. In fact, as the economists, bankers and captains of industry know, the Third World debt issue continues to cause alarm to the World Bank, the IMF and private western banks.

The world-wide high tech' communications revolution is making national economies more and more interdependent. With a global economy that will be increasingly knowledge based, we will no longer be able to permit unequal educational opportunities.

In this 'land of the free and the brave' with a population of 269 million over 80% of the population has a VCR in the home. Most households have at least 2 TVs. In 1999 there were about 50 million personal computers in American households, of which 35 million were online. Worldwide there are 50 million personal computers online.

Twenty percent of the U.S. is connected to the Internet. One hundred million people around the world are using the Internet and it is estimated that by 2005, some 1 billion people may be connected. Last year alone there was a 400 percent increase in the number of Internet users in China, which has a 1.2 billion population, more than one-fifth of the world's inhabitants.

We must realize, as both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt did, that capitalism can be efficient but it can also be cold.I remember Edward Heath, the Conservative Party prime minister who took Britain into the European Common Market, angrily warning against the 'ugly face' of capitalism.

Against this background, the billionaire George Soros has just written a book called The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered. One of the so-called ultimate truths that Mr. Soros inveighs against is market fundamentalism, the belief in the magic of the market-place and the merits of unlimited competition. "It is market fundamentalism that has rendered the global capitalist system unsound and unsustainable," he declares.

Dubiously enshrined in establishment economic thinking is the 'too big to fail' doctrine -- the idea that government will intervene to save a bank in trouble if it's collapse would cause major harm to the economy.

Recently, with the Federal Reserve led rescue of a large and heavily leveraged hedge fund -- Long Term Capital Management -- a corollary appears to be in the making: some financial firms are too big to liquidate too quickly.

From my personal social perspective, it is not clear that Long Term Capital, or any other hedge fund, serves a sufficient social purpose to warrant government-directed protection. I fear that hedge funds are run-amok, casino-like enterprises, driven by greed with leveraged bets of such huge proportions (hundreds of billions of dollars) they can control global capital markets and even jeopardize the economic viability of individual sovereign states, specially developing countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, and also Russia and the other states of the former USSR.

I felt that the rescue of Long Term Capital Management was scandalous. So much for the much vaunted belief in the so-called 'free market' (which I do not think really exists.) Ironically, the Fed's intervention came at a time when the U.S. government was preaching to foreign governments, particularly Asian ones, that the way to modernize is to let weak institutions fail and rely on market mechanisms, rather than insider bailouts.

Worse still, the federal government here played a part in precipitating a bailout offer that was more advantageous to the failed management than that which the 'free market' offered.

I contend that the public should be assured that the government will not subsidize insider bailouts or protect those which make investment blunders. The 'too big' doctrine is simply too prone to fail. Incidentally, the failed Long Term Capital was the envy of its peers and the very paragon of modern financial engineering, with two Nobel prize winning economists among its partners and Wall Street's most celebrated trader as its CEO.

Since the 1970s, virtually all our income gains in the U.S. have gone to the highest-earning 20 percent of our households, producing inequality greater than at any time since the 1930s.

Mr. Bill Gates alone is wealthier than half the American people put together. Yet economists treat the issue as a regrettable footnote in the glowing story of world-beating job creation, soaring corporate profits and all but invisible inflation.

Recently, researchers in the U.S., Canada and Britain found evidence that more unequal societies are more unhealthy. If you live in a place where differences in income and wealth are unusually large (the U.S., for example) your chances of escaping chronic illness and reaching a ripe old age are significantly worse than if you live in a place where differences are not as large (Sweden, for example.)

Consider for a moment the slender basis for much of what we currently accept as economic gospel. Communism collapses, and the most timid forms of social planning are seen as a first step down the road to the gulag. Western Europe falters, and we are ready to throw a century's worth of social welfare measures in the trash.

The American economy goes into high gear for a few years, and the idea of corporate executives who earn hundreds of times more than their employees becomes a law of nature.

Indeed, the confidence with which eternal verities are thrown around by experts and accepted by masses of people in the capital and market driven part of the world these days recalls nothing so much as the Soviet Union a generation or two ago. This dogma too shall pass, and we will all be better off.


These 100 years have been the century of freedom; the century of capitalism burying communism; the electronic century, with man on the moon; the global century; the mass market century; and, frighteningly the holocaust-genocidal century. So with these telling facts in mind what big issues will challenge us in the early 21st century?

The world will have to confront the power of tribalism and the challenge of so-called 'fundamentalism.'

We still have not learned the lessons of two terrible world wars. There were 24 major armed conflicts waged within countries last year. Today in places as diverse as Kosovo and Colombo, Sri Lanka, new history is being written in the blood of deep seated ethnic frustrations. Peace keeping in Bosnia alone has already cost the international community about $50 billion since 1992.

Since 1945 the two-legged animal's cruelty and stupidity have been unbelievable. His shortsighted inhumanity is wrapped up In this riddle: What does a child in Sarajevo and a lion in the Kabul Zoo have in common? The answer: The child lost a leg and the lion half its nose and part of its upper lip and jaw. Both were victims of anti-personnel mines. These mines are the legacies of small to large wars. Frighteningly, they have left an estimated 110 million mines and unexploded ordinance in some 65 countries. Afghanistan and Angola are strewn with the most uncleared mines; about nine million each.

Global politics are being reconfigured along racial, religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural lines. Political boundaries are increasingly redrawn to coincide with these.

Our American nation is getting used to being multi-cultural and we do not Balkanize because of it. But like other nations we will have to adapt to a new century.

At the same time much of the world is being remade by a global economy that has linked political openness to economic growth.

Democracy, always a moral high ground, turns out to be good for the business of today. But the idea that we are moving toward a single global culture is both false and dangerous. Economic strength and social mobility will unlock a new, more complex balance of power as even simple ideas about how we live our lives come into question. Thus will the western concept of the 'nation state' wither? Will there be a meaningful United Nations?

The digital revolution that burns so brightly today will pale in comparison to the revolution to come in biotechnology.

The eminent British physicist Stephen Hawking, speaking at the White House on science in the next millennium, pointed out that for the past 10,000 years there had been no significant change in our human DNA. But over the next 100 years, we will be able and tempted to tinker. Will we clone ourselves, will we custom-design our kids? By playing Dr. Frankenstein we will have the chance to make miracles or monsters. The challenge will be more moral than scientific.

Anyhow, one thing certain about the next century is that it will be wired, networked and global. Because national borders will be unable to block the flow of information and innovation, the societies that thrive will be those that are comfortable with the free flow of services, goods and ideas.

Surely we are agreed that two paramount issues that the new century will have to deal with are:

To what extent should we trade off our environment for our economy?
How should the advancement of a secular global mentality make room for God?
Please glimpse at these population and environment issues awaiting your grandchildren and their children in the new century:
- The world population today is 5.9 billion compared to 1.6 billion in 1900. In the U.S. age 65 and over account for 13% of its population.
- There will be one billion automobiles in use by 2021.
- There has been a 70 percent increase in Third World "greenhouse" gas emissions in the past decade.
- More than 50 acres of the world's precious forests will be lost per minute.
- Fifty percent of our small planet's known primate species will be threatened with extinction.
Before we begin the questions, I must warn against these two urgent, life and death problems:
1. The growing threat that terrorists pose with home made bombs (like the one used at Oklahoma) and miniaturized plastic devices etc of devastating power.
2. The horrendous implications of the proliferation of atomic, biological and chemical weapons, about which much more should be done in the frightening wake of Chernobyl.
However, being an optimist I will end on an encouraging note. There is cause for hope. Human endeavor and the instinct for survival will combine with technological, scientific and medical advances to 'overcome'. Despite Spengler's prediction, technics will not master man.

Every generation thinks its problems are unbearable. They are not. Let us stick to our fundamental values, which are sound and healthy. Above all, remember that the human factor in politics, economics and personal relationships is what counts and does make a difference. Let us do the right thing and our best. No one can do more.

So what for me are the lessons of this 40-year journey around world diplomacy?

In the unpredictable course of international happenings, let us take the Buddha's "middle path" of moderation in all things, including moderation itself.

When things look too awful and insoluble in the short term be patient, have a long attention span and remember T.S. Eliot's advice:

"Teach us to care and not to care.
Teach us to sit still."
And, since no Man is an Island, we should on the personal level, recall Ezra Pound's words: "...nothing matters but the quality of the affection -- in the end -- that has carved the trace in the mind..."

Because a main part of this talk concerned the media in the English speaking world, please let Winston Churchill have the last word:

An editor once had the temerity to correct a Churchillian sentence on the grounds that he should not have ended it with a preposition. Churchill scribbled a note of his own: "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put."

Thanks for putting up with me and listening so patiently.

Now, I hope you will put frank and probing questions and we will try and come up with some answers.

[Mohsin Ali, World War II air force officer, joined Reuters headquarters, London, in 1948, and as diplomatic correspondent covered virtually every major world event until his retirement in 1980 when he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) by Queen Elizabeth. He then joined The Times of London bureau in Washington, and retired to Pinehurst, NC. He is an invited speaker at universities, social and professional organizations.]

Copyright © 1999 Mohsin Ali - All Rights Reserved
back button