United States Vice-President Al Gore's remarks on democracy in Kuala Lumpur a week ago, and the reaction they provoked, have underlined the dangers of taking a simplistic approach to the political development of East Asia. Once the sound and fury from Malaysia has died down, a broader question will remain about the way the US sees the region - and vice-versa. The immediate point is that, in expressing irreproachable support for democratisation in general, the vice-president's specific praise for 'brave' Malaysians may end up being counter-productive for those he praised by making it easier for the government in Kuala Lumpur to link them with what one minister branded as 'a foreign conspiracy to interfere in Malaysia's domestic affairs'. But beyond that, Mr Gore's lumping together of People's Power, the Doi Moi campaign in Vietnam and the reformasi movement in Indonesia raises a distinct worry about how the most powerful country in the world sees East Asia. Not long ago, the region was portrayed as a single entity enjoying miraculous growth and set to become the motor of the world economy in the 21st century. Now it seems a similar broad-brush approach is being applied to political development. This may be fine for the electorate in the US when the sound bite of Mr Gore standing up for democracy in front of a man who dared to jail his main opponent plays in his campaign commercials during the coming presidential race. But, as Mr Gore went home, he left a region that is far more complex than any sound bite could contain. For a start, the reaction to his words showed up some of that complexity. The anger from the Malaysian authorities was only to be expected. However, as reports from Kuala Lumpur have made clear, people who wish there were a realistic alternative to Dr Mahathir were put out, too. Philippine President Joseph Estrada may have loved the speech, but some regional publications which are firmly pro-democracy were less enthusiastic. The US remains the Pacific superpower, and any regional recovery depends on a continuation of its economic boom. But the APEC meeting showed a distinct cooling of relations between Washington and some of its Asian partners. The central reason for the organisation's existence - liberalisation of trade - is now in question, not only because of the pressures born of the crisis of the past 16 months but also because Dr Mahathir's attacks on Western - read American - free global capitalism are now being questioned by some of those who once flourished on the back of the inflows of funds which the system brought. In that context, the potential is there for the US to be painted as an overbearing giant, rather than the friendly older brother. When US President Bill Clinton cancelled his visit to APEC at the last moment to deal with Iraq, and his vice-president walks out of a lunch after delivering his homily on democracy surrounded by a phalanx of security men, the image of Imperial America is all too present. This is not only a matter of economics and politics. As the Yale economist Jeffrey Garten notes in an article in the latest Business Week, fear of US cultural imperialism is becoming widespread. If they feel their national cultures under assault, some countries may feel tempted to follow Dr Mahathir's example, not in economics but by erecting walls against Disney or rap groups. The American umbrella is going to remain over East Asia for some time. Its effect has been broadly beneficial in the past, but it would be a strange irony if a simplistic approach by its politicians caused a regional backlash just at a time when the democracy Washington espouses is showing signs of a healthy development on this side of the globe.