When we come to war, conflict and corona we have no proportion

“How sour sweet music is,

When time is broke, and no proportion kept!

So it is in the music of men’s lives”.

Shakespeare wrote this in his play Richard 11 in 1595. In the events of his day in high politics there was little sense of proportion. In Europe war was everywhere. Neither is there much today, particularly when it comes to conflict and war.

If you watch television and read the serious newspapers it’s hard not to be convinced that we are constantly immersed in friction and strife. This is simply not true. For most people, in most parts of the world, for most of the time, for most of their lives, people live their lives without serious ill treatment, molestation, violence or persecution.

Take war today. Without those moving pictures of conflict and war, TV news would be singularly and conspicuously bereft, even unable to fill up its time-slot.

I list the countries where there is war or serious armed conflict today, and their populations:

Ukraine- 40 million people. Yemen- 1 million. Afghanistan- 12 million. Myanmar- 30 million. Somalia- 5 million. Chad- 16. Mali- 5 million. Congo- 6 million. Syria- 17 million. Ethiopia- 112 million.

That gives a grand total of 244 million people who live in countries at war. The world’s population is close to 8 billion, so that is 1/32nd or 0.03 (rounded up). Moreover, most of them are not living near the actual fighting. I would take a guess that only around 50 million are actually in war zones. Proportion!

Exaggeration undermines our judgement and eventually our equilibrium. Another example is the Corona virus. “A pandemic of fear”, a Russian journalist friend of mine described it eighteen months ago. Over the last two years more people have died from heart disease than corona in the US and Europe. In the US ten times more children and teenagers have died from traffic accidents than have died because of the virus. Why not invest more in limiting the use of cars? Malaria has been claiming the deaths of over 200,000 children in Africa each of the last 50 years. But investment by richer countries in funding malaria research into a vaccine has declined in recent years.  Why not fast-track research for a malaria vaccine as was done for corona?

This is not to argue that the Corona virus has not been a terrible event but it has certainly been hyped beyond what is reasonable, to the exclusion of the useful and worthwhile comparisons I have just made- and there are many more. The media, given a choice, have always highlighted the worst of the figures. Moreover, if one reads or replays the reporting of the last three months you will see that there has been scant attention given to the fact that for some months now China- population 1.4 billion- has shown convincingly that it has practically defeated the virus, apart from the odd cluster here and there. Positive stories don’t sell or, in China’s case, are not welcome for ideological reasons. Better to highlight the travails of France- 111,000 deaths with a population of a mere 67 million, dramatically lit up by the Eiffel Tower!

Now let’s take a look at the West’s quarrel with Russia. What was the cause of the breakdown of the very friendly relationship that followed the end of the Cold War in 1991?  Back then most Western politicians were stressing that Russia was no longer an enemy. But then in 1999 came Nato’s decision to expand its boundaries close-up to Russia’s, even though that broke the American, German and British promise made to the Soviet Union not to. Europe with some uncertainty at first moved in lockstep with America. Russia justifiably became angry- not just the leadership but an overwhelming majority of its population.

Twenty two years after President Bill Clinton’s decision to expand what have we? A growing antagonist relationship, often with bitter outbursts, as over the poisoning and the imprisonment of the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, or the decisions by the US to abrogate important nuclear arms control treaties.

In the era of the Cold War a case could be made by the West that Russia was a predator nation intent on a messianic spread of communism throughout the world. Massive armies and arsenals of nuclear weapons were believed necessary to stymie the Soviet Union’s subversive desires. Also Russia occupied the countries of Eastern Europe against their will. Whatever one thinks about the morality of the possession of nuclear weapons, one has to accept the reasons given for their possession were enough to convince most politicians in power that nuclear deterrence was necessary.

These were BIG divisive issues. How can the frictions of the present day compare with those, to the point that these enormous stocks of nuclear weapons can still be justified? Do we continue to deploy nuclear weapons which, if used, as former very influential US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, has warned, would wipe out civilization, because of some human rights abuses in Russia? Or because of the bloodless seizure of the old Russian territory of Crimea, the base of Russia’s important Black Sea fleet? Or because Russia is building an oil pipeline to Germany avoiding Ukraine? Or because Russia is aiding the Syrian government in a civil war that continues as a low level but cruel conflict in a relatively small country?

Come on. How can we justify this, unless our sense of proportion has completely gone to sleep?

In ordinary life this would be the equivalent of threatening capital punishment for car thieves, or for an eighteen-year old boy who beat up my fifteen-year old on his way back from school.

Are we going to go on and on to threaten much of the world with murder, for that is what a nuclear war would mean, for issues that are not life and death ones?

The fact is, if we do, we are souring the “sweet music when time is broke, and no proportion kept. So it is in the music of men’s lives.” What else is there to say? Is this how we want to live, as far into the future as we can see?

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Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power has been an international foreign affairs columnist for over 40 years and has interviewed over 70 of of the world's most famous and influential presidents, prime ministers, and political and literary icons including Ignacio Lula Da Silva, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Willy Brandt, Julius Nyerere, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Paul McCartney, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eldridge Cleaver, Jimmy Carter, Olusegan Obasanjo, Georgio Arbatov, Dilma Rousseff, Olof Palme, Helmut Schmidt, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Jose Saramago, Ben Okri, Manmohan Singh, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Barbara Ward, Valeria Rezende, Pranab Mukherjee, Ben Mkapa, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Pervez Musharraf, Imran Khan, George Weah and Angela Davis. Many of these were full-page broadsheet interviews. For 17 years Jonathan Power wrote a weekly column on foreign affairs for the International Herald Tribune. He has also been a frequent guest columnist for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. He has written eight books on foreign affairs and, in his early days as a journalist, made films for the BBC, one of which won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. Previous to his journalistic career, he worked on the staff of Martin Luther King. Jonathan has probably been printed more times in American newspapers than any other European. He is also listed in Who's Who.

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