Sitting this morning in Basilico, Mumbai’s premier Italian restaurant and only the second place we’ve found in India where you can get a really good coffee, I read in the “International” section of The Times of India that George Bush’s pre-State of the Union address approval rating is the lowest for a serving president since Nixon was caught authorising a burgulary.
With the degree of incompetence the Bush administration has demonstrated in both domestic and foreign policy, of course, this is hardly surprising. But the point I want to make is how distant and irrelevant the travails of the US president are when viewed from a country like India. In Australia, such news is important – it might not have a direct impact upon our lives, but we’re a prominent ally of the US, and its English-speaking democracy is similar enough to our own for us to feel a certain cultural camaraderie with the US, even if we don’t actually like it or its government. So whether or not we approve of what the US is up to, what it’s up to matters to us.
To a significant proportion of the rest of the world, though, the US is appearing increasingly to be a busted flush. It’s still an important player in the affairs of world politics, but there’s a real sense that power is shifting. From this distance, the US looks faintly ridiculous, like a dishevelled pisshead at a dinner party, still ranting and raving at a table that’s looking to slowly and discreetly excuse itself from the room.
Much of this is to do with the Bush adminstration, of course. In Australia, there’s still a debate about whether the invasion of Iraq was a morally or legally justifiable venture. That debate seems to be well and truly over in the rest of the world, if it ever really got going. Whether left- or right-wing, all the Indian papers are unanimous in their opinion on Iraq – it’s seen as an ill-conceived and illegal imperialist crusade, and the consensus seems to be that the current situation is America’s comeuppance. And this in a country that’s ostensibly an American ally – I can only imagine what the papers in Lahore, or Dubai, or Marrakesh have to say.
More interestingly, though, no-one seems to care a lot. Sure, there’s an empathy with the suffering of the unfortunate Iraqis who are innocent victims of the whole fiasco, but that’s as far as it goes. But that’s it. On the whole, India is more interested in its own status as an emergent power. Its economy is booming – growth is high, and in terms of per capita GDP, the economy is expected to grow fourfold by 2020. Sure, GDP isn’t necessarily the best indicator of prosperity, but still, such growth would put India right up there with China as an economic power, and both countries will be much larger economies than the US.
Even now, the US’s old economic might is certainly not what it was. It only really retains superiority in military terms, but even this isn’t nearly as much use as it might appear. I’m reminded of the episode of Yes Prime Minister, where Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker are discussing the use of the nuclear deterrent. Hacker is adamant that he would use nuclear weapons, but only as a last resort. Sir Humphrey produces a number of increasingly dire scenarios, asking each time whether Hacker would break out the nukes – in each case, the answer is no. It eventually turns out that he’d never dare to use them, a fact that Humphrey seizes on gleefully: “So what is the last resort, Piccadilly? Botford Gap Service Station? The Reform Club?”
Even better is the following bit of dialogue:
Jim: It’s a bluff, I probably wouldn’t use it.
Sir Humphrey: Yes but they don’t know that you probably wouldn’t.
Jim: They probably do.
Sir Humphrey: Yes, they probably know you probably wouldn’t but they can’t be certain.
Jim: They probably, certainly know that I probably wouldn’t.
Sir Humphrey: Yes, but even though they’re probably certain you know you probably wouldn’t they don’t certainly know that although you probably wouldn’t, there is no probability that you certainly would.
As usual, the show was spot on (has there ever been a better politcal satire?)
The point is, of course, that overwhelming military superiority is only overwhelming if you never actually use it. When you do actually resort to force, you often find that your advantage isn’t quite what it seems (Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam etc etc) – especially if your electorate isn’t particuarly enamoured of its citizens dying in large numbers. And anyway, as the collapse of the Soviet Union showed, all the weapons in the world aren’t a lot of use if the enemy is within – you can’t nuke a failing economy. At present, the US’s economy is built on a frozen lake of debt and the social inequity that Bush’s favour-the-rich brand of capitalism has created. It can’t go on this way indefinitely, so for all that India is hardly a shining example of social justice and economic benefits for all, perhaps it’s still correct to be viewing the US increasingly as yesterday’s news.
Time will tell, of course, but it’s interesting to see things from a perspective other that the North American / British / Australian one.