An Asian view of American arrogance

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2007, 12:00am

Few men or women are all bad or all good; and few of us go through life without losing at least one job or two under duress. The importance, therefore, of the Paul Wolfowitz affair lies less in the man himself than in what the astonishing World Bank scandal symbolises in a larger and much more important sense. In truth, the whole mess is more about deeply embedded American arrogance (on display for all the world to see, yet again) than anything else.

You might think the fact that the World Bank president has been forced to resign might not be such earthshaking news in New Delhi. Why should anyone care outside of the usual cartel of insiders in Washington, New York, London and maybe Tokyo?

But on the contrary, the story of the fall of the former US deputy secretary of state over allegations of unethical favouritism makes for interesting news in Asia. In India, for example, the story has been given considerable prominence. The reason is not hard to understand. The bank is based in Washington, and from that summit dishes out development and poverty aid as it sees fit to countries in desperate need. Over the years, this has included many Asian nations, including India. The bank is an institution that is traditionally dominated by American leadership and American thinking.

An editorial comment in the Hindustan Times, an English-language daily in India's capital city, reflected a common Asian perspective on Dr Wolfowitz's crash. Titled 'Crying Wolfowitz', the newspaper focused less on the man who was forced to resign than on the man in the US presidential office who chose Dr Wolfowitz to head the bank. It noted the American government's pre-eminent role in the selection process, the tradition of having an American in the top job and sarcastically took note of President George W. Bush's 'shoot from the lip' style of decision-making that catapulted his former aide into the top bank spot in the first place.

It is hard for many in America to understand the philosophical bitterness with which the Wolfowitz story is viewed without an understanding of the arrogance with which Americans are too often viewed.

Many examples abound, but if further fuel needs to be added to the fire, a new book, by American historian Robert Dallek, provides it. One section in particular of Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power - an engrossing history of these two ultra-arrogant Americans - will especially interest Indian readers. It tracks the Nixon administration's involvement in the 1971 India-Pakistan war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. It records descriptions by the then US president and his national security adviser of the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in the most contemptuous and insulting terms. Apparently, Dallek writes, the favourite word for the Indian head of state from Nixon and Kissinger was 'bitch'.

In the end, Gandhi was to have the last laugh, of course. India ignored the United States and went to war, successfully; later, the much-revered prime minister was to comment that 'the times have passed when any nation sitting 3,000 or 4,000 miles away could give orders to Indians on the basis of their colour superiority to do as they wished'.

Indians and many others in Asia bring a similar perspective to events such as the World Bank scandal. Their animosity is not so much towards any one individual, as towards a new kind of colonial mentality that believes it knows what is right for everyone else.

Dallek's book suggests that the Bush administration may be a proud practitioner of American hubris, but it is far from the first American government to do so. The sorry World Bank story simply adds to the Asian perception that Americans do not listen enough to learn enough to be constantly respected.

Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre