9/11, Terrorism and the Current State of International Relations
It would be difficult to “misunderestimate” the impact that 9/11 has had on the modern world and each one of us.
One can only wonder how it would have unfolded differently had it never occurred at all. There is something to be said about confidence; some internal and nebulous variable that ebbs and flows and yet has effect on our collective psyche and behaves almost contagiously, spreading or receding. It is difficult to foster, hard to maintain and easily broken. 9/11 seems to have broken something and created a sort of ripple effect. Whether it simply exacerbated perfect storm preconditions or has been the central stressor or seismic event is open to debate.
It has surely had a significant impact on the world and has contributed to increased political divisiveness and scapegoating, diminishing respect for all forms of authority and waning perceptions of global security and stability.
What was to ensue was arguably two illegal wars plus a host of other more localized military incursions, a global market, real estate, banking and refugee crisis, intra and inter-regional instability, an Arab spring and a general malaise about future prospects of peace and multilateral cooperation. It seems to have altered an earlier trajectory, most notably heralded after the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Wall.
Now, to be clear, the world has never been truly stable. Stability, peace and progress are not universally linear nor ever present in all places and sectors at once. It always has rather a cyclical nature and never applicable in all places at the same time. Some portions of our global population, still today, have yet to fully participate in human progress and development, despite positive longer term trends. And it would be short sighted to not notice two catastrophic world wars emanating from Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Having said that, there have been positive developments and a prolonged reality and perception of stability since 1945, at least among the great powers.
it is also invariably true that many of our contemporary problems would have presented themselves even in the absence of 9/11. There are good reasons to believe that problems loomed on our horizon independently and in advance of 9/11. The uncertainly of a sole super power’s new role and future behavior was still unclear. A growing global Islamic fundamentalist resurgence was present long before 2001. In fact, you could go back as far as the early 20th century to see early developments and the birth of its modern incarnation. Fault lines in the European project had already formed. The post war idea of “fortress Europe” in the context of European immigration worries far predates events in New York. Global market bubbles and pressures had certainly been building and were well attested to. Climate change had been largely ignored as far back as Kyoto in ’97 and was relevant as early as ’92 in Rio. Nuclear disarmament had already long been on ice since the stalling of START II in the early 90s. Many people seem to forget the invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing legal multilateral military response which came to be known as the first Gulf war in ’90. That turns out to have been somewhat of a harbinger of what was to come. And who can ignore the emergence of and impact of the internet and social media?
As an international law and economics student in the early 90s in Switzerland, I had the privilege of a bird’s eye view on a lot of what was to come. Attending various U.N. conferences on development, human rights, Islamic resurgence, war and peace and immigration law as well as working closely with international academics provided me with a lot of insight into and exposure of contemporary issues. At the time, there was a lot of guarded optimism. The peaceful fall of the Wall left many hopeful about the future of global multilateralism, human rights and the strengthening of the rule of law. Many believed in the concept of a New World Order based on the best of our collective values and the lessons taught to us by history. Sadly, that incredibly enlightened concept has now become nothing more than a cheap conspiracy theory and bandied about by ignorant and paranoid porters of tin foil hats and fear mongers. The first Gulf war, the tragedy and failures in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, East Timor and elsewhere ultimately shattered a lot of that momentary optimism. Many of you know where things have gone since then. Traditional unilateralism, state sovereignty and classical power dynamics simply came out of temporary exile to once again rear their ugly heads. Or maybe it’s more honest to say they never went anywhere.
My personal philosophical disillusionment with the United Nations and the public sector was to grow shortly after my studies and U.N. consultancy contracts finished, for a number of different reasons. I reluctantly made the choice to move into the private sector where I have spent the rest of my career since. My youthful idealism was to dissipate precipitously after seeing what the United Nations could be and could do but was never legitimately established to carry out and realize.
For those of us who were already mature and self aware enough at the time, 9/11 was a watershed event and left an indelible mark. It is one of those rare instances in life when people have something like a photographic memory of where they were and what they were doing at that precise moment. For me and many others, it was the most important global event that we had ever experienced. I imagine that it would be comparable to those from previous eras who lived through the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing or the end of WWII.
I was on a business trip in Lisbon, Portugal on that day working on a pan-European consulting project for British Petroleum (BP). I was giving a presentation in a conference room at the time as murmurs and strange utterances began to slowly crowd out my voice and the attention of the conference participants. I came to learn simply that something big had happened in the U.S. As the severity and seriousness began to come to light, I left the conference, walked out in the hall and saw a lot of confusion and somber faces. I quickly returned to my hotel and flipped on the television to watch the events unfold and in time to see the second tower hit and ultimately for both to come tumbling down like a house of cards. I instantly thought of my mother in Los Angeles and tried to contact her to no avail as all lines were busy. I contacted the airlines to find that all flights were grounded and canceled and understood that I would not be getting back home to Geneva that day. I worried about how long I might be stuck in Lisbon.
The thing that will always stick out in my mind on that day, above and beyond what happened in New York, concerns an interaction that I had with a couple of American tourists. Being lost and befuddled in a confused haze, I meandered slowly outside of my hotel room into a local Portuguese plaza hoping to share my despair and fear with others. I was happy to hear American English in my vicinity, as I do not speak Portuguese, and came across an older American couple on vacation in stereotypical matching jogging suits. I felt a sudden kindred sensation of national solidarity with my fellow American brethren and was hoping for some consolation from them. Heck, I think I literally just wanted to hug someone and be hugged. I was in my mid 20s, far away from home and longed for the childhood comfort that was only ever afforded to me when in the presence of my loving and doting mother and grandmother. I would simply be lying to say that I was not viscerally experiencing fear and insecurity. It was as if the image of the world that I had come to know had just been shattered like so many shards of a broken wine glass falling in slow motion before my eyes. That all might sound melodramatic but I don’t think I’m alone to have had those sensations.
I remember all three of us lamenting on the events, in utter shock. I remember discussing how obviously well organized and planned out the attacks must have been and that the perpetrators were clearly neither amateurs nor lacking in resolve. This did not seem to be simply an act of lunatics, but rather acutely political, ideological and rational in nature, despite the suicidal commitment. I remember stating that I hoped that this would not result in a knee jerk act of vengeance, blood lust and instant retribution. I hoped that cooler heads would prevail and that the best military, political and international legal expertise would be brought to bear in full force before deciding how to proceed. I had studied the threat of international terrorism and knew exactly the flaws inherent in the body of international law established to counter it. International law was never set up to deal with the security and military complexities and ramifications of terrorism. The central paradigm of international law is of sovereign nation state actors, not of disparate non-state actors which exist beyond and without border and are largely indistinguishable from normal citizens.
My interlocutors that day – this older American couple on vacation responded in a way that will never leave me. The gentleman after listening to my opinion got suddenly very angry. Any solidarity and bond that we shared for a brief moment entirely dissipated. His response was short and crystal clear. “I had to fight in Vietnam with my hands tied behind my back. I say nuke ’em all and raze the entire region.” His words sent chills down my spine. My final word to them was simply that I hoped he did not speak for the majority of Americans or the rest of the world and I excused myself.
While his proposal thankfully did not ultimately come to represent our response, my hope for cooler heads also did not come to pass. I expected comprehensive, extensive, exhaustive and lengthy multilateral diplomacy, international legal consensus and General Assembly approval. None of those prerequisites materialized.
People demanded retribution and there probably was never going to be another option available to the powers that be at that moment in history. We do not yet live in the world that I, and many others like me, would like to see.
“I can hear you, the rest of the world can hear you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” George W. Bush, Ground Zero, September 14, 2001