Taming the Elephant

What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.
(Job 3:25-26)

In certain wars of antiquity, in the age of Alexander the Great or Hannibal, elephants played a significant, sometimes even crucial role in battles – as something akin to tanks in World War II. Yet this large but sensitive animal could be extremely capricious, potentially behaving exactly contrary to the intentions of the commander and the orders of its tamer – rider, and with its sudden, uncontrolled charge would lead to unwanted results, such as victory for the enemy. The issue and problem of the rider controlling the elephant is used by modern psychologists as a simplified illustration of the relationship between reason (exemplified by the rider – tamer) and primary human emotions (exemplified by the elephant) such as fear, anger, sadness, delight, and joy. Man, just like wider society, struggles with a daily effort to rein in his huge emotional “elephant”, which is not a simple task even in relatively “normal” times. This task becomes an especially difficult one in times of heightened fears and anxiety, such as with the appearance of an unknown disease whose causes, effects, and ultimate social and international consequences are unclear.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thus far had contradictory effects on the international scene. The speed of its spread is another confirmation of the planet’s high level of globalization. On the other hand, reactions to the spread of the virus, mainly manifesting in national measures, restrictions, closures of borders, suspensions of international activity and economic cooperation, and others, confirm a crisis of globalization and multilateralism, the signs of which appeared long before the virus. International or regional organizations, including some of the most developed ones, such as the European Union, have shown neither particular speed nor effectiveness in dealing with this crisis. The impact on the economy is unprecedented, and the slowdown of all social activities is something that has never been seen before. States have turned themselves, barely maintaining a minimum of mutual solidarity. The pandemic has also shown the essential sensitivity of humanity to natural challenges, and the limitations of human knowledge, including science, in spite of the exceptional technological development of recent decades. On the other hand, this is also a moment in which both populist governments and anti-elitist publics of some countries have turned to experts, such as doctors, researchers and others who can contribute to reducing misfortune and finding solutions.

This pandemic has shaken humanity in a hitherto unprecedented manner, social distancing and the halting of social life with the goal of slowing the spread of the contagion. It is an unusual social experiment involving most of the world, the final effects of which cannot yet be seen. The effects of the pandemic will likely accelerate some of the current trends in international relations, such as increasing disarray in the global order, the waning long-term influence of the USA and Europe with the strengthening of Asia, especially China, the decline in relevance of global and regional organizations, conflicts between states over natural resources, the strengthening of authoritarian regimes, xenophobia and populism…

In his already-classic work The Geopolitics of Emotion, Dominique Moïsi pointed to the importance of the influence of emotions on the behaviour of states in the international order. He notes “emotional boundaries in the world have become as important as physical or topographical ones”. He divided the emotional reactions of certain states or regions into three principal groups: regions of rapid economic growth and young populations, representing regions of hope (predominantly in Asia), regions of low birth rates, aging populations, burdened by terrorism, which are regions of fear (such as Europe and the USA) and, finally, regions where there is a widespread sense of prolonged cultural and political decline – regions of humiliation (most nations in the Middle East, especially the Arab states).

This pandemic and its aftermath will undoubtedly spark a new wave of both fear and hope among nations. Will humanity be able, as a collective tamer, to tame the huge emotional elephant stirred by global contagion through cooperation, compliance with the rules, and international institutions? Or will uncontrolled, collective emotion dominate and, as often occurs in the face of major conflicts, will fear and anger foster aggression and egoism as well as new conflicts – this is one of the major issues the world will face at the end of the acute phase of the pandemic. Even before the start of the pandemic, populist and authoritarian leaders sought to exploit the emotional elephant in their electoral and other battles, risking its uncontrollable agitation.

Man has risen to what he is today by taming, through consciousness and reason, the primary emotions inherited from his ape-like ancestors. The pandemic should be the basis and motivation for new solutions in international multilateral cooperation, for a humanity more responsible towards itself and the planet. In the same vein, at the level of our continent, this major upheaval should act as a warning, providing impetus for a new beginning in strengthened cooperation and more concrete solidarity within the European Union and beyond, upon which the futures of young generations of Europeans will depend. The tamer will have to demonstrate once more that he is able to lead the elephant, not the other way around.