A Stubborn Species

A Stubborn Species

T P Sreenivasan

T P Sreenivasan

On that fateful day of September 9, 2001, and for a while after, everyone predicted that the world would change beyond recognition. We thought that the prediction of Nostradamus that “On the 11th day of the 9th month, two metal birds will crash into two tall statues in the new city, and the world will end soon after” had come true. Since the world did not end, we gave a clever interpretation that the world, as we knew it, would end.

Among the predictions made, the most important was that there would be an immediate consensus to end terrorism, as it had appeared in a new form, threatening even the most powerful nations. For a few weeks, all the bodies of the UN became hyper active. A Working Group of the Legal Committee of the UN, which had become dormant, came back to life and it looked as though the Comprehensive Convention on Terrorism, which I had introduced in the UN General Assembly in 1992 on behalf of India, would be approved. But soon the move collapsed on the issue of definition of terrorism, as before, as though nothing had happened. A miniscule UN office in Vienna to combat terrorism came into focus and it was strengthened and the Security Council itself sprang into action. But the UN ended up endorsing the various resolutions already adopted and the UN fight against terrorism subsided because nobody was willing to compromise on any established positions.

President George Bush unleashed a war on terrorism, but recruited Pakistan as his partner in the battle in Afghanistan. The US managed to overthrow the Taliban regime, but terrorism continues even today because of Pakistan’s perfidy. President Trump’s wish to pull out of Afghanistan before November 2020 remains unfulfilled as US withdrawal would mean the reinstatement of the Taliban Government. The tragedy of 9/11 did not lead to the elimination of terrorism. Terrorism is alive and well.

A complete transformation of the geopolitical structure and a change in the theories of deterrence were also expected to take place in the aftermath of 9/11. The initiative launched by President Obama for a nuclear weapon free world appeared to be attractive to even some old cold warriors, but building up of armaments and development of sophisticated weapons have continued unabated even after it was proved that the capacity to destroy the world many times over would be futile in the face of a terrorist attack even without handguns and grenades. The arms race is in full swing.

What has remained as a legacy of 9/11 is only the elaborate security checks, particularly at the airports. The pain of being strip searched at airports is now being tolerated for the good of the world. Human beings forget even the worst of tragedies and go on. I remember how a meeting of the Board of Governors of the IAEA received the news of the bombing of the twin towers in horror. All of us expressed our sympathy and solidarity to the US ambassador and expressed the view that the impact of the terrorist attack would be a game changer in international relations. The US ambassador thanked all of us and said, “ Please take it as though this event has not taken place. The US will soon recover and flourish again.” We thought it was overconfidence, but he was prophetic.

Covid-19 has been with us for half a year and there have been predictions galore about the post-Covid world by scientists, strategists, politicians and poets. One thing that they have not predicted is the trajectory of the pandemic and when it will end. There are predictions made within days of the onset of the pandemic that the world after the pandemic will be beyond recognition. There were others who predicted that the changes already in progress will be accentuated by the pandemic. But if we observe the behaviour of humans thus far, it appears that the world will remain more or less the same. We will be as selfish, as greedy, as combative and as envious as before.

The pandemic was considered an ‘equaliser’ at the beginning and there was considerable panic that it could infect anyone. But now the feeling is that some are more vulnerable on account of age, living conditions and hygiene than others and the majority will escape infection if adequate precautions such as hand washing, use of sanitisers, masks and social distancing are taken. There is a false sense of security each time relaxation is made to the lockdown. The examples of Taiwan and Sweden are held up to show that lockdown itself was unnecessary.

As for the behaviour of nations, it appears that the old ways have not changed. The power struggle among nations has intensified because of the fear that there will be a reordering of the pecking order at the end of the pandemic. The chill in the relations between the US and China, which has assumed the characteristics of a new Cold War is a direct result of the pandemic. The US is ravaged by the disease, the economic collapse and racial conflict and the inept handling of all the three by an irrational and unpredictable President has compounded matters. President Trump has become more aggressive than before against China for fear that China may be the victor of the pandemic war. Some poetic justice is visible in the fall of the approval ratings of Trump, but there are still those who believe that he will win again.

China, on the other hand, sees the possibility of realising its dream of overtaking the United States and has started flexing its muscles in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea and on the border with India. Even as it is grappling with the charge that China had deliberately released the virus or, at least, hid the fact of the seriousness of the outbreak, thus preventing other nations from taking precautions, the pandemic has not had any humbling effect on China. It claimed victory at the World Health Assembly by turning the “investigation” into a “review” and standing firm on the invitation to Taiwan to the Assembly.

The UN Security Council remained moribund in the face of the pandemic because of China, even though it had acted more decisively in the case of other health emergencies such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola and SARS. The UN lost its credibility because of its dereliction of duty at a crucial moment in history.

Europe has shown some semblance of unity in fighting the pandemic, but it is too little too late. Russia is still struggling with Covid-19, but President Putin is still engaged in perpetuating his rule and preparing to interfere in the US elections to get Trump re-elected.

So, what has changed in the world except that thousands have died, millions are sick with different stages of infection and the global economy has collapsed. Crimes, corruption and alcoholism have increased and no particular attention is being given to the protection of the environment. Perhaps, the only lasting legacy of the pandemic will be the mask and extra hours at the airport for health checks. Humans are a stubborn species, entrenched in their ways and there are no signs of fundamental transformation in their individual and collective behaviour so far.


The facts and views expressed in the article are that of the author.