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Is the West losing it?

February 06, 2004 17:32 IST

The erosion in the West's once insurmountable lead over the rest of the world was apparent in several things that happened recently:

  • the imposition of non tariff barriers by the US on outsourcing, and their insistence that India must open up its markets more to American companies
  • the loud and public indictment by a judge of the professionalism and impartiality of the British Broadcasting Corporation
  • the great lengths to which the French went to grovel before a visiting Chinese strongman

It can be argued that all of these are symptoms of what might loosely be called the decline of Western civilization. For, all of a sudden, the Euro Americans are no longer talking from a position of strength; pending the rise of Asia, they are forced to use all the wiles at their disposal to try and maintain an edge.

The Americans are direct as ever. Without samam or danam, they are heading straight for dandam. That is, they are threatening punitive action, which has been their specialty with Super 301, wherein they supersede multilateral WTO type treaties with bilateral action.

The Americans have been able to get away with this because they have been by far the world's biggest economy, and no other nation could afford to be shut out of it. This still is the case, but it is now evident that other nations are also becoming increasingly important markets, in particular China and India.

The American imposition of non tariff barriers on outsourcing is regrettable from an ideological point of view, as they have been the biggest boosters of 'free trade'; from another perspective, it can be seen as a futile attempt, like King Canute's, to hold back the waves of change. The fact of the matter is that American businessmen will do whatever it takes to gain an advantage; and that today translates into outsourcing for lowering cost of operations. This means the Senate ruling is an election year stunt for the masses, intended to mollify a section of the voting public.

I expected something like this; I take credit for having forecast this as early as a year ago, before most people started thinking about the backlash: see my column on Catfish capitalism. As in the case of the poor Vietnamese catfish farmers, all the fine talk about 'fair trade' and 'globalization' is strictly for evangelization; at the end of the day, the West is strongly mercantlilist and protectionist. They spend billions on protecting their inefficient industries. Caveat emptor! when the American trade representative speaks sweetly of zero tariffs and the benefits therefrom.

India's competence in skilled labor has always existed; however, the West has been able to negate that by preventing the free movement of labor, while clamoring for the free movement of capital. The Internet, a disruptive technology, created the opening for India: as usual, truly innovative technologies have consequences nobody foresees. All of a sudden, it's not the free movement of people that counts, but the free movement of packets of data.

The fact that the Americans see the need to now handicap the Indian competency should be seen as a back handed compliment: the Americans are in essence saying they admit India has a competitive advantage they cannot do anything about. Besides, barriers to trade often hurt the country imposing them, because competing economies will not impose penalties, and therefore will enjoy the benefits of comparative advantage. In the case of BPO, perhaps Europe and Japan can benefit from unfettered free trade.

On the second point, the decline of the standards of one of the pillars of the Western establishment, the Fourth Estate, is another troubling sign of decay. In the US, the haughty New York Times was brought down to earth in 2003 by proven allegations of fraud and fabrication by its reporters. There have been similar cases in the recent past at the Wall Street Journal, too, where if I remember right, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter turned out to have manufactured entire stories.

I was especially delighted to see the mighty British Broadcasting Corporation humbled by recent events. The BBC claims to have a reputation for integrity and fairness. Now this may once have been true; and it is true that compared to America centric media like CNN the BBC is a little less consumed by imperial navel gazing.

However, when it comes to India, the BBC has demonstrated endemic nastiness, at least

ever since that scholar and gentleman, Mark Tully, was forced to resign. I am not sure quite what has happened at the Beeb, but I suspect it has been taken over by Old Left Comrades that infest Britain. Furthermore, they employ, based on multiculturalism, many Pakistani Britons, who strive to present India in a bad light.

The BBC has therefore specialized in systematically denigrating India, especially since the Congress lost power. Maybe the White Man still believes in his Burden in India, and is therefore unhappy to see Indians asserting, for instance, that British rule was hardly an unmixed blessing. There are plenty of semi literates in India who run around parroting idiocies like 'India was not a country before the British came,' but the fact that the British stole roughly $10 trillion from India is also now coming to light.

The spectacle of hotshots at the BBC resigning amid much wailing and gnashing of teeth and allegations that the judge in charge of the investigation had done a whitewash job for Tony Blair (gasp, a British judge, partial? No, tell me it ain't true!), was music, so to speak, to mine eyes. The English language media in India is the pits; the West's oh-so-superior and patronizing media has proved it's no different by washing its dirty underwear so publicly.

Finally, it pained me a little to see the French humiliate themselves in full view of the world trying to suck up to the Chinese. This is especially sad coming from the proud French, who, after all, braved American displeasure by opposing the most recent Gulf War. I have a number of French friends, and I like French cuisine and wine and films, so I am definitely disappointed.

I think the French have quietly reconciled themselves to the decline of their culture and of their position in the world. Their utter defeat at Dien Bien Phu decades ago showed them the limits to their power. A while ago, I wrote about the decline of France based on the 15,000 old people who died because nobody bothered to take care of them during a heat wave; that was thanks to a tip from reader Mouli. Today, they have to be aware that even at home, there are some French citizens who are actively anti France, as reader Raghav notes.

Nevertheless, the extent to which Jaques Chirac groveled for visiting Chinese strongman Hu Jintao was astonishing. Yes, France would like to penetrate the (alas, illusory) Chinese market of 'one billion consumers,' but that is no reason to kowtow and prostrate oneself. What did the French do?

  • castigated Taiwan's referendum efforts ultra harshly
  • lit up the Eiffel tower in red
  • declared 2004 the Year of China
  • organized a Chinese parade on the Champs Elysees
  • had Hu Jintao address the French Parliament, the first Asian to do so

At the end of all this, China gave no concessions to France, and an enraged Taiwan put France on notice. Memo to the Indian foreign policy establishment: Self abasement clearly does not win you friends; it merely causes others to despise you.

It just goes to show, as the late lamented Roseanne Roseanneadanna would have said, that the West is beginning to take note of the rise of Asia. India should take full advantage of this through marketing and branding. Threatening to withhold contracts appears to work miracles.

There are two lessons to be taken away from this whole carnival: one is that by waving about the idea of a large and lucrative market (even if it is imaginary), it is possible to get Westerners to fall at your feet and salivate. Commerce Minister Arun Jaitley please note.

The second is that there are some Leftists with a little sense of national pride. Chirac's antics were condemned most harshly by France's Leftist opposition, who denounced 'excessive deference to China.' India's Marxists, please note: it is not required that you must BOGU (bend over and grease up, a picturesque phrase courtesy Steve Ballmer of Microsoft) for China's benefit all the time. This may be news to them.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the British science magazine New Scientist suggested that the terrifying Asian bird flu probably originated in China. A report in The Times, London, on January 30th says: 'The Asian epidemic could have begun as early as the first half of 2003, but a combination of official cover-up by China and questionable farming practices allowed the outbreak to spread.' Why am I not surprised?

Rajeev Srinivasan