Rude response exposes two world views

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2012, 9:43pm

'You f-king Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we're not going to deal with the Iranians?'

To most Americans, this by now infamous outburst allegedly uttered by a senior Standard Chartered executive must create a strong impression - if not proof - of culpability. That is presumably why New York State's top financial regulator, Benjamin Lawsky, cited it prominently in his incendiary charges against the British bank for hiding US$250 billion of transactions for Iran against US-imposed sanctions.

But to many others, the executive was speaking for them too, not necessarily about Iran per se, but extraterritorial laws - mostly related to sanctions - imposed by the US on foreigners. Indeed, put in more polite diplomatic terms, that was the reaction of Canada, Mexico and the European Union when the US first tried in 1996 to extend sanctions against Iran by imposing penalties on foreign companies that did business with it. For example, the EU passed a regulation to forbid its citizens from complying with US sanctions laws on Iran and Libya.

The subtext of Lawsky's sensational charges go considerably beyond US laws and global banking regulations; they point directly to the chasm between Americans' perception of themselves as just and good and the world's image of an overbearing America. A standard American defence is that Lawsky is doing his job even if he may be going overboard. He has the law to enforce as he interprets it as best he can. His is a nation of laws, after all.

Many foreigners do not see it that way. Sanctions laws are by definition political instruments. They are tools of foreign policy. Just because you call them laws does not make them any less political. When the US tries to impose such laws on foreigners and their companies, such extraterritorial claims are bound to ruffle feathers. Developing countries like China have had long experience of imperialist interference and are especially sensitive.

The StanChart executive may be cast as a villain in the US, but to outsiders, he was expressing widespread resentment against an overbearing power.