Twenty years have passed since the United States experienced the terrorist attacks on its territory, which resulted in the deaths of some 3 000 people in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania.

Considering that current generations, in particular the so-called generation Z or the centennials – those born after 1995 – were too young to assimilate the complexity and severity of the mentioned attacks, an analysis assessing the significance of such a systemic event that changed the world is needed.

This analytical exercise is also important so that the world builds – or at least tries – prosperous and secure societies at a time when another systemic event, the pandemic caused by SARSCoV2, threatens to become the central issue in the international agenda to the detriment of the attention that many other threats, risks and vulnerabilities deserve in the 21st century.

In these 20 years, where the events of 9/11 provided names, surnames and faces to threats to international security, there have been two major armed conflicts, one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq – ironically, to safeguard the security of the world and eradicate the terrorist threat and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. During this time, violations of fundamental human rights, social polarization, racism, exclusion and the rejection of otherness have progressed worldwide. Migrations, asylum applications and internally displaced persons have increased due to causes not only associated with violence, but also due to the actions of organized crime, natural phenomena, and man-made disasters. The destruction and illicit trafficking of cultural heritage has progressed by leaps and bounds. Information and communication technologies (ICT) have generated an enormous stimulus for people not only to become informed but, unfortunately, to consume fake news.

María Cristina Rosas

The United Nations and its affiliated programs and organizations have suffered from the crisis of multilateralism, losing for the maintenance of international peace and security. As cyberspace is another of the fields of national power of increasing relevance, it has become a base of operations for cybercrime, cyber-war and cyber-terrorist actions. Weapons of mass destruction, in particular chemical and biological weapons (i.e., anthrax, sarin), have made an appearance to cause a lot of damage in various conflicts, while the nuclear ones have in North Korea but also in the five powers recognized in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, their main promoters. The arms race has also evolved in technological terms with the development of lasers and kinetic weapons, as well as smart weapons and vehicles to carry out offensive and defensive tasks. The space race has renewed. Intelligence services have been challenged due to their failures in anticipating today’s challenges. In this century there have been two pandemics and outbreaks of new diseases or long-standing diseases that are – and most probably will – living with us. Also 9/11 marked the end of privacy in the name of security, with interventions and surveillance of emails, messages, phone calls, monitoring of social networks, etcetera being now ratified due to the SARSCoV2 pandemic to monitor infections and prevent them from spreading.

These 20 years have been fortunate in many respects. Two multilateral disarmament treaties, one to eradicate cluster munitions and the other to ban nuclear weapons, have seen the light of day in 2008 and 2017, respectively. In 2006 the Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (Semipalatinsk Treaty) was created and so in 2013 was the Arms Trade Treaty. Extraordinary efforts have also been made to fights and restrict the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in various regions of Africa. In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were proclaimed with the intention of repositioning the development agenda in the international agenda. 2001 was the year nanotechnology broke through. In 2003 the complete sequence of the human genome was deciphered. In 2012 the existence of the Higgs Boson or “God’s particle” was confirmed.

The 21st century belongs to social networks. LinkedIn was born in 2003, followed in 2004 by Facebook. In 2005 YouTube was launched, while in 2006 Twitter’s blue bird made its debut. Then in 2009 came WhatsApp; in 2010 Pinterest and Instagram and in 2016 Tik Tok. These networks have substantially modified the way in which people communicate, entertain, share and/or generate information, for good and for bad.

The 9/11 attacks marked the irreversible decline of the United States as a world power. With three Republican administrations (the two of George W. Bush and one of Donald Trump) and three Democrats (the two of Obama and the Biden’s current one), the U.S. authorities have had to maneuver in an international environment where the loss of power – hard and soft – must contend with the promotion and/or repositioning of other actors. Russia is one of them, that after the coming into power of Vladimir Putin in 2000, has regained prominence in international relations and has become an important actor in global affairs. Its neighbor, the People’s Republic of China, is a country that, especially in the economic and technological sphere, has emerged with constant growth rates, even in 2020, the year of the pandemic.

In the past 20 years, Beijing managed to become the first or second major trading partner of most of the world’s nations – the United States included. India, despite its deep social inequalities, has emerged in the 21st century with vigorous growth rates and with enormous achievements in two crucial areas for the global economy: human resources in the computer sector and also in the pharmaceutical industry. On the opposite side, those that seem to have lost power and influence in the past 20 years are Japan and the European Union, especially in the political and economic fields. With mediocre growth rates and the decline in 2009 (courtesy of the terrible crisis of 2008), in addition to the fact that, in the European case, there was also the fracture of BREXIT with the withdrawal of Great Britain from the integration process, everything points to a world moving from the golden era of North Atlanticism to the era of Asia, driven by the PR China, India and of course, Russia – given that Putin has been privileging strategic attention to the Asian part of its extensive territory. Given this, it is worth asking how peaceful would this hegemonic transition be? How much the United States, which has shown a remarkable capacity to reinvent itself in previous crises, will be able to pull strings to influence international relations or at least overcome the hangover of the 9/11 attacks, the crisis of 2008 and now the terrible consequences of the pandemic?

This is what happened in 20 years. Terrorism set the security agenda to the detriment of the development agenda. Today it could be argued that, apparently, the development agenda – of which health is a fundamental component – is strengthened due to the pandemic caused by SARSCoV2. However, resources for development and specially for the SDGs do not seem to be flowing in the desired amounts either in 2021 or in the next three or four years. Health could receive important resources for a couple of years, but according to what has been seen between the A H1N1 pandemic in 2009 and the SARSCoV2 of 2019 to date, in inter-pandemic periods there is loss of interest and it is forgotten the importance of having mechanisms that favor equitable access to health services and the benefits of medical research. Could it be that SARSCoV2 monopolizes all the attention of the international community the same way terrorism became so vital in the global agenda after the 9/11 attacks? Would that happen at the expense of working on other important agendas, such as global warming, poverty reduction, and social progress? The balance for now is that after 20 years of those dramatic events that shocked the U.S., the world today is neither safer nor more prosperous.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by María Cristina Rosas, a university professor and author based in Mexico City. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Rosas can be reached by email via [email protected].

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows the 9/11 Memorial reflecting pool and One World Trade Center. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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