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The humble American

December 16, 2010 18:47 IST
Talk of American decline and loss of influence is both premature and overblown, says B S Prakash.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

We had an American visitor. No, I am not talking about the Barack Obama visit to India on which I must be the only person who has not written a commentary, but I am recalling one of our American friends who came to stay with us at home in Brazil recently.

As it happened, one day he went out for a haircut and I went to collect him from the saloon in the shopping centre. He seemed a little shell-shocked as he paid up and I asked him as to what had happened.

"Two things," he said analysing his own situation. "First, no one spoke a word of English, so I could hardly explain what haircut I wanted and see what they have done. Second, it cost me the equivalent of $32, twice what I pay in the US. And this in a poor country," he protested.

"First, this is not a poor country, second in this highly fashion conscious place you cannot get a simple hair cut, you are coiffured, and last, your dollar has fallen so much that the rest of the world has become expensive to you," I pointed out.

I know him well and can speak to him like that, but at another level, I was coming to terms with the humble American, a recent phenomenon, in contrast to the old cliches of 'the ugly American' or the 'arrogant American' who used to be written about visiting Asia or Latin America. And this, because of the tectonic shifts in the geo-politics and economics of the world which does impact, albeit imperceptibly on the lives of ordinary individuals and their hair cuts.

Talk of American decline and loss of influence is both premature and overblown, I still believe. After all the US is and will continue to be the number one in terms of the size of the economy, the military might, the technological prowess, the excellence in university education and many other indicators.

At over 14 trillion dollars, the US economy is still more than three times that of China or Japan and ten times that of ours, despite all our economic growth. But something is changing and the clearest signs are when you follow the debate within America, see its self-doubts or talk to sensitive Americans, like my friend.

There are two ways in which Americans analyse their problems: A comparison with others to see whether they are slipping and the other way -- forget others, and look inwards to see what is going wrong.

Third World America is the title of a new book by Ariana Huffington, a proud but sensible American commentator which does the latter and Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria, an American but with a sympathetic eye on India's rise is one of the many which does the former.

The comparative aspects of America vis a vis China or Europe is one of the frequent narratives in the international discourse today: The gigantic trade surplus that China has accumulated or the other side of it, America is burdened with; the steady decline of the value of the dollar, the problems with American competitiveness etc.

These are some aspects of structural imbalances that I touched upon in a previous column 'Who said that there is justice in the world?' There may be something positive in this development in the sense of the birth of a 'multi-polar' world and a knock on the erstwhile belief of American exceptionalism, the notion that many Americans nurture, 'we are singularly different just because we are Americans.'

The other aspect that of Third World America as in Arianna Huffington's analysis are the basic problems in themselves and not in relative terms. Problems familiar to the 'third world', though we in India have always disliked the term itself, preferring to call ourselves 'developing world'.

What are these? Decaying infrastructure, insufficient investment in public goods, lack of access to quality education and health, growing unemployment, inadequate governance with corruption and scandals, grid lock in the political system in even addressing such issues. Is the US beset with these? Hearing Americans, it would seem so.

'Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' are goals enshrined in the American constitution. Happiness, being a psychological state cannot be guaranteed, but there is an implicit promise that conditions are created to enable its pursuit, ground conditions with plenty of opportunities.

Stated in a more tangible way, generations of Americans have believed that their children's lives will be better than their own at every segment of the society, that the dream of a modest house with a car in the garage, a well stocked refrigerator, and a job to go to or a business to nurture was within reach.

No longer, it appears. Look at some numbers. Currently 10 per cent are unemployed, more than 25 million people. The quality of education in science and mathematics at the average school level is an astonishing 42nd in the world, notwithstanding the Harvards and the Stanfords.

Health care is seen as unaffordable for many and the attempt to fix it, a hugely divisive political issue. The US is at number six in terms of innovation, not withstanding the steady stream of iPhones and iPads that Steve Jobs keeps coming up with.

And I am not even going into the domestic effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No wonder an astonishing 63 per cent said in one survey that they regarded their future as bleak, in the sense that they thought that their children's lives will be tougher compared to their own. You may get a more optimistic view in India.

"So what? Why should we be concerned?" you ask me. There are some good reasons. At a strategic level an America that loses its confidence and capability changes the equilibrium, especially in Asia. A growing and healthy American economy is in everyone's interest, as was agreed at the G-20 meeting in Seoul recently. So many major economies, including our own, benefit by the demand in the US for our products and services, the IT and the BPO industry being the clearest examples in our case.

At a more visible level with nearly three million people of Indian origin resident in America and a hundred thousand students going there every year, many middle-class Indians are directly touched by a reversal of fortunes in the US. To recall an old saying 'if America sneezes, we may catch a cold'.

There is another more complex factor which should make us think, if the Americans continue to struggle to find fixes to their problems. This concerns the efficacy of democracy as a system to find solutions to long-term structural issues. Some astute political analysts are discovering a possible 'genetic defect' like a faulty chromosome in the body politic of a democratic system.

They point to the difficulty in the system of taking tough decisions involving sacrifices in the present with a view on the future. Reducing budget deficits, investing for the long term with no immediate political returns, reforming entrenched systems with vested interests such as health care: These are some of the issues that a highly cerebral and competent President Obama is struggling with at the moment.

And then the forbidden thought for a believer in democracy: is the other political model in the world --'authoritarian capitalism' more efficient? This will be the ideological battle for the coming decade. We have an interest in the outcome.

No doubt a humble American is nice to behold. But so is a happy American rather than a grumpy one.

B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at ambassador@indianembassy.org.br

B S Prakash