DO personalities really shape the course of the world? In the wake of a superpower summit, one can be forgiven for thinking so. The media on such occasions zeroes in relentlessly on the faces and actions of the principal players - in this case, Mikhail S. Gorbachev and George Bush. True, some attention gets paid to events, especially those in the Soviet Union and in Europe.
The ideas behind these events, however, rarely get explored. And the fundamental values and attitudes propelling those ideas are nearly always left untouched.
Why? In part because we're in an age when images have tremendous authority. You can't photograph values and ideas. Even events show up best when pictured through the eyes of beholders. But that's only part of the reason. After all, we're people: And people tend to like and respond to other people. We're rightly curious about what makes others tick. We want to know the human side of world leaders.
That's a natural tendency. But in the past year we've had a powerful example of the dangers of carrying this emphasis on personality too far. It comes, as so many sobering examples have come, from Iran, where a year ago, on June 3, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini died.
For Westerners, Khomeini was a particularly troublesome character. His well-known visage scowled at us from photographs and cartoons. He actively supported terrorism. His virulently theocratic pronouncements condemned everything from America and Europe to author Salman Rushdie and women without veils. In the eyes of the Western news media, he became, at last, a kind of Satanic presence, a primum mobile for much of the world's evil. Small wonder, then, that the West sighed with relief when he was no longer around.
If the world really were driven by personalities, the end of Khomeini should have produced marked changes in Iran. The facts tell us otherwise. The pattern of assassinations of Iranian dissidents continues unabated. On Sept. 20, after a French airliner bound from Brazzaville to Paris exploded in midair, killing all 171 aboard, an Iranian-backed terrorist organization took responsibility. On April 24, a leading Iranian dissident, Kazem Rajavi, was shot dead near his home on Lake Geneva by assassins presumably working for the Iranian government. Last week West German police arrested two Iranians apparently intent on assassinating a spokesman for the People's Mojahedin, the leading opposition group.
This is a sobering litany of international crime. Yet for much of the Western press, it has gone almost unnoticed. Why? Largely, I suspect, because we are still in the grip of our thesis that personalities drive the world. Iran, we're convinced, should have gotten better once Khomeini left. Faced with evidence to the contrary, we must either revise our thesis or overlook the facts. To our peril, we tend to choose the latter course.
I say ``to our peril'' because it is frankly dangerous to misinterpret motivations in global hot spots. Were Panama's troubles all of General Noriega's making? Is all well in the Philippines now that President Marcos is no longer on the scene? Will we get an adequate reading of South Africa's future by focusing so intently on Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu?
And what about the Soviet Union? Are we so fascinated by Gorbachev himself that we downplay other forces for change in that nation - events like the protests in Armenia and the Baltic republics, ideas like the growth of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and free-market economics, values like respect for the environment and attachment to the land? If Gorbachev were no longer in power, would we expect all things to change - and, if they didn't, would we be so captivated by our hypothesis that we would overlook the facts?
What's needed is balance. Of course we must know the players. But we also need to know the game. When our reporting emphasizes the former to the near-exclusion of the latter, it's time to ask whether we're really getting an accurate picture of the way the world works.