Toward the Age of Common Sense

Toward the Age of Common Sense
▪ 1995
by Sir Peter Ustinov
      I am not one of those who can easily tell the difference between year and year, like a meteorologist with reliable charts to go by. I am not even one who can refer to a kind of event or quirk of fashion as typically '70s or '80s. All I am capable of is sensing the prevalent groundswells of life and registering, on occasion, the undertow, which is often contradictory.

      We are in the midst of an enormous revolution in collective behaviour, one which is too often judged by old criteria. It all began, within living memory, with the sudden dissolution of one of the most rigidly controlled autocracies the world has ever known, the Soviet Union. It was as if the nation had responded to some physical law, like the boiling point, and simply vanished. Abruptly, in a world which had obeyed a general tendency to unify and coalesce, a large number of new republics were born, all enjoying a precarious independence as though they had found themselves in the middle of the last century.

      The example was followed by others who felt cheated of their moment of self-identity in history. Slovakia decided to secede from its Czech sister, and the horror of Yugoslavia must be invoked as the most lamentable example of blood carelessly and brutally spilled during these enormous upheavals. I would go as far as to say that in Prague, suddenly released from the doctrinaire bonds of communism, the mob reacted, perhaps for the first time in history, with the intelligence of an individual. There were no excesses; no proof was needed of what was happening; joy and relief created their own congenial climate.

      Mikhail Gorbachev will certainly go down in history as the great pioneer who made this extraordinary reassessment possible. It matters little that he is suffering from a temporary eclipse in his own country. He launched a new way of thinking of which we all are the beneficiaries, and nothing parochial politics can do is capable of tarnishing his example. There will always be those of limited vision who believe that the Cold War was won by the West and that it constituted a victory over the heresy of communism, to be celebrated as such. To be so shortsighted would be to judge by outmoded standards, as I have mentioned above. Gorbachev's importance was not merely to re-create Russia out of the embers of the Soviet Union but actually to be the first to hazard the opinion that the nuclear deterrent, so favoured by hawks in both camps, was a lunacy and an odious reflection on the humanity of all nations.

      Chernobyl was a frightening warning. The idea of millions of deliberate Chernobyls, killing and distorting life on a huge scale, was an idea too horrible to contemplate, and yet its possibility had been entertained by rational people. The automatic result of this renunciation of the advantages of nuclear weaponry by the major powers, and the beginning of the gradual dismantling of their huge arsenals, was the signal for another phenomenon to begin, a respect for human life in those parts of the world most capable of ending it on a large scale. This unexpected respect for the sanctity of life, coupled with growing political pressure from Green parties and ecological groups like Greenpeace, has resulted in a totally changed attitude toward military intervention and the military in general. A new role is being invented for NATO, without much success now that the Warsaw Pact has disappeared into thin air. There is, in fact, something a little pathetic about vast armies left without opponents worthy of them. In NATO's case there is the paradoxical sight of old enemies applying desperately to join, finally underscoring its utter uselessness, at least in the role for which it was constituted. Another case, that of the U.S. armed forces, is at least as difficult to resolve. The imaginative tiptoe diplomacy of Jimmy Carter, Sam Nunn, and Colin Powell in Haiti in 1994 was followed by an enormous show of military might. This time, however, unlike Panama of a few years back, the might was used only as a demonstration of the power behind the tiptoes. The airborne troops landed and, their mandate not being immediately clear, they had for a time to watch local police brutality without intervening. Eventually it turned into a successful mission, however, with the reestablishment of an elected authority, to be followed by the gradual evacuation of the armada to leave the country to whatever devices lie within its competence.

      Other spheres of international intervention in 1994 were not so happy. In Rwanda the French risked setting a dangerous example but succeeded in demonstrating that it is the duty of responsible governments in the midst of the present moral confusion to act responsibly. The fact that they did something was, in itself, a welcome change from the general paralysis gripping other large nations. In Somalia the muddle of the attempted reconciliation between armed intervention and humanitarian action had not been resolved, with the result that a violent punitive expedition against clandestine but popular leaders was thwarted, the troops withdrawn, and the peacekeepers left more or less at the mercy of the gangster bosses.

      The acme of mismanagement in 1994 was reached in Bosnia. Once again a compromise was sought between the military and those dispensing humanitarian aid. The result was a hybrid force confronting those who expected and feared old-fashioned ruthlessness but received only shadowboxing. It was too easy for the disreputable to deliberately misunderstand the rules of this new game of symbolic strength, with every finger forbidden contact with the trigger and only intangible moral ascendancy as the force to be reckoned with. We know the results. Some spectacular but halfhearted air strikes against meticulously specific targets and entire groups of thinly armed UN peacekeepers taken hostage temporarily in order to prevent this from happening again. NATO, left to its own untried devices, would presumably have known what to do under such provoking circumstances, but driven into endless and fruitless consultation with the UN as a senior partner, it was frustrated and finally worse than useless.

      As an unarmed apostle of peace, the secretary-general of the UN was somehow less convincing in 1994 than was Mahatma Gandhi half a century ago, a business suit carrying less weight than a loincloth and dispassionate logic less weight than serene conviction. The cumulative effect of these half measures and counterfeit toughness was to leave the frightening impression that perhaps millions of men had died in vain during the most recent of wars "to end all wars," and that, compared with the spineless posture of these modern self-styled peacekeepers, the appeasers of Munich, Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier, appeared in retrospect as merely cautious.

      Of course, it is easy to criticize when one has no responsibility, and it may well be that the present anomalies are all a result of the profound changes to which the societies of the more evolved sections of our planet have submitted. There is a general increase in sensitivity toward the value of human life, and the threats to the well-being of the community are suddenly clearly defined. For the first time in history, if one excepts the unique example of the International Red Cross, which succeeded in enforcing accepted standards for the treatment of prisoners of war, there have come into being movements born of the guilty conscience of the human animal, such as Médecins sans Frontières, volunteer medics in explosive parts of the world; Greenpeace, vigilantes raising objections to errors of ecological judgments on the part of governments and businesses; and Amnesty International, an organization recording man's inhumanity to man. The very existence of such international bodies, to say nothing of the Green parties in various parliaments, in which for the first time concern for the health of our environment achieves a response from voters, is symptomatic of an extraordinary reassessment of responsibility in human affairs.

      The terrifying advance of AIDS has created an enemy for the human animal far more tangible than the traditional rivalry between nations. It arrived at the very moment in history when humankind was being asked for the first time to contemplate a future without enemies, a far more formidable task than it at first appeared. From time immemorial enmity has been a fact of life. It has polarized our endeavours and created targets for our energy. And it is good for business. What Dwight D. Eisenhower so graphically described as the military-industrial complex was the logical consequence of the concern for defense which was a priority at a time in which the enemies were allowed to flourish. Since then the military-industrial complex has priced itself out of the market with the endless need for weapons of ever greater sophistication. Now that the latest combat aircraft costs 10 times what it did in even recent memory, there is a sudden need for stringent economy in an area traditionally outside normal strictures. Besides that, the chronic absence of rivals has sounded more than a warning note to all those industries reliant on pessimism for their very existence.

      In the new pattern of nationalism, there is no country left which is fully independent. Even the mighty United States is required to consult before exercising its rights as an independent nation. Those countries which have recently acquired independence often find themselves in fact less independent than they were before their gesture of liberation. A flag unlike any other, an anthem with unique words, and a worthless currency all one's own are not valid proof of national identity. This can only come through interdependence, a sane evolution of independence with secure modern structures, where national identity is respected and a fair share in increasing mutual prosperity is guaranteed.

      The tendency toward internationalization is irreversible because it is an economic necessity, and economics governs the ebb and flow of human intercourse where military might and colonialism did in a previous era. If this were not so, why was the League of Nations created at the end of World War I, a prototype, imperfect and dangerously ahead of its time, destroyed by the swan song of old-style empires and the upstart dictators who sought to revive them? It took another terrible war to build up momentum for a new surge of hope, in the shape of the UN. It, too, is living through moments of danger, but what a triumph of the will that it exists at all! The UN survives because there is an urgent desire for its survival, as an outcome of that universality of purpose desired by all sane inhabitants of the globe, concerned with people and not with monstrous excrescence such as ethnic cleansing and other antediluvian forms of racism.

      Already commerce is international, and the close examination of a recently purchased product often reveals that it may have been built anywhere but in its country of origin. Once business is international, it follows that crime is automatically international too. The police are still shaking themselves free of their parochial shackles. Interpol is authorized to work only in a consultative capacity for the time being. And certainly a form of an internationally approved legal system is a crying necessity for dealing with organized crime stretching over national borders. The farce of instituting tribunals to deal with war crimes in former Yugoslavia is an example of the creaking mechanism operative at this time in such urgent matters. In this case it is obviously not facilitated by the fact that many potential war criminals are engaged in a parody of peace talks, and it will be difficult to recognize accepted negotiating delegates as criminals once peace has been established.

      But, you may ask, once all is subjected to this new, as yet uncertain, atmosphere of cooperation toward an ultimate raising of living standards everywhere, a technological breakthrough for changing conventional concepts of unemployment, of jobs, of all human activity, even of leisure, what is there left for those who still dream of glory, of service to a country, to a flag? Little wars and isolated outbursts of turbulence will go on as long as there are communities still rooted in their tribal past, playing old games by old rules, matches and return matches with bullets as arguments and death as the scorer. In the more evolved parts of the globe, the elements in human nature which still hanker for victory and the clash of arms, the Olympic Games, the World Cup, and other safety valves, are there in force to ensure an outlet for high spirits. The sight of an athlete on the victor's podium, eyes blurred with tears and mouth stumbling over the words of an anthem unknown to a majority of spectators, should be enough to slake the thirst for restrained heroics, and athletes, embracing, united by their disciplines rather than divided by their nationalities, more than a hint of a new spirit animating this aging world.

      We were not born with prejudice, which develops through family life and education and seems much like the sediment in any bottle of fine wine. However, the fact that children left to their own devices are free from it should be an example and a warning to us all. The old African proverb which says that we do not inherit the world from our parents but rather are lent it by our children is particularly apt. The fact that this piece of subtle and searching wisdom comes to us from the most troubled and the most perplexing of this earth's continents is very revealing.

      In an ideal world, every living being would be everyone's responsibility. In a real, yet changing world, we are shyly edging toward such a distant possibility. Love of country is normal. Patriotism which leads to others' being hurt is no longer acceptable. The young are invariably in advance of where we stood at the same age. They are often skeptical of the values we piously handed down to them, and this is all to the good. Experience is something which may well have to be acquired, but so much has changed fundamentally since we acquired ours that it may not be apposite today. Politicians are far too glib about the rise of crime in the young and tend to advocate sterner penalties, more prisons, and a galaxy of lazy solutions to problems which have their roots in boredom, in the chronic lack of horizons, in the penury of oxygen for the imagination. Here is the real clash of generations, opposing the hardened mental arteries of those still addicted to a dull, conventional view of things and those impatient with what they are told and eager to obey their own instincts, which suggest that life must be richer than it is allowed to appear.

      As one who is privileged to be chancellor of an outstanding university, may I say that I have the greatest respect for the motives and impulses of the young. They may make mistakes at times, but that capacity is also enjoyed by the old. On the other hand, their sense of adventure, if allowed to burgeon, is a constant source of wonder, as is the clarity of their vision and their optimism even under the pall of authoritative discouragement.

      Sometimes, listening to the admonitions of those old before their time, laying down the law in some parliament or congress or chamber of deputies, we might easily get the impression that nothing really evolves, nothing really moves forward. Believe me, it does. The proof? Sixty-seven years ago there was a picture on the wall of my first classroom. It was of Jesus Christ leading a Boy Scout by the hand and showing the boy with his other hand the extent of the British Empire on the map. The expression on the Lord's face could best be described as reverent ecstasy. There was no doubt whose side He was on. Once again, in the early '20s, a French politician made a vibrant oration describing the swelling pride in a mother's heart when she inadvertently discovered that the Unknown Soldier was none other than her missing son. It is difficult to understand today how such tasteless nonsense could have been taken seriously only just over half a century ago. If standards have changed so rapidly, is there any limit for our future hopes? In all probability, the coming generation will take as normal that which we welcome with such trepidation and incredulity today, an age of common sense.

The protean Sir Peter Ustinov is known throughout the world as an actor on stage and screen (numbering two Academy Awards and a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award among his honours), a playwright, and a director of theatrical productions, operas, and motion pictures. Forbes FYI recently titled an interview with him "The Greatest Living Raconteur"; he delights audiences around the world with his witty one-man show. Ustinov has served as goodwill ambassador for UNICEF since 1969 and chancellor of the University of Durham since 1992. He was knighted in 1990 and is a member of the French Academy. In addition to his stage works, Ustinov has written short stories and novels and contributes a regular column to The European. A collection of these commentaries was published in 1991 under the same title, Ustinov at Large.

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Universalium. 2010.

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