By Chandran Nair
A recent Gallup survey of respondents from 65 countries suggests that America is now seen as the country that poses the "greatest threat to world peace today". In fact, more people picked the US than Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan combined.
Seen from Asia, this result wasn't hard to understand. The perspectives of non-western observers are rarely given a proper hearing. This has blinded western citizens to the fact that the west's loss of standing is not something that started, for example, with WikiLeaks or Edward Snowden's revelations and it will not end if and when those issues have been resolved. Nor did it begin with the financial crisis or the disastrous invasion of Iraq before that.
Here are four instances in which the west has sabotaged its moral authority. An obvious start is the west's post-colonial adventures in Asia and the continuing refusal of the US to apologise for its use of napalm and Agent Orange, or for its carpet bombing of Cambodia and Laos. Equally damning is the fact that it has never been pressured to do so by the same western allies who are all too eager to point to the crimes of others, even in former colonies where their own past misdeeds are conveniently ignored.
Another significant event was the Asian financial crisis of the late 90s and the way the region was both misadvised and humiliated by western institutions and political leaders. Asian leaders who spoke up against the prescriptions of the west, such as Mahathir Mohamed, were severely criticised but later proved right. Lessons were learned and not forgotten.
Thirdly, and more recently, was the Copenhagen climate conference of 2009 where Asian nations such as China, India and Indonesia were urged to sign up to a climate agreement that happened to align perfectly with western interests rather than global public good. Unmentioned but not unnoticed was the irony of asking Asians to spend and consume more to prop up the post-crisis global economy and at the same time reduce emissions.
But the biggest source of enmity today has to do with the west's foreign policy. Leaving aside its blunders in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and continuous attempts to portray China as a threat to its Asian neighbours, the western world's treatment of Iran is seen as nothing other than illogical and unfair. Asian nations are opposed to nuclear proliferation (it was, after all, an Asian country that experienced the world's first and only nuclear attack) and the antisemitic rhetoric of the former president – but they are sympathetic to the Iranian position. The region is watching carefully as to how the west reacts to the new Iranian president's call for a deal and his wholly sensible request for a nuclear-free region that includes Israel.
Then there is the issue of the chemical weapons used in Syria. First were the attempts by westerners to portray themselves as the only ones concerned about the horrible attacks and thus the only ones willing to act. This was a slap in the face for the majority of the global community whose lack of appetite for military action was born out of wisdom (cf Iraq) rather than a lack of compassion. Secondly, the reaction of many of the western leaders and media to political processes within their democratic systems which prevented unilateral military action was one of fretting about appearing weak, as opposed to celebrating a democratic decision. This confirmed suspicions that the need to show military strength finds a convenient outlet through the moral fig leaf of humanitarian intervention. The coup de grace, of course, came when, in spite of all the west's sabre-rattling, it was a diplomatic overture by Russian president Vladimir Putin that resulted in an agreement with the Syrian government to destroy its chemical weapons.
Between the twin desires of western politicians to hog the global stage and placate their poorly informed domestic audiences it looks unlikely that this trend of political mismanagement will be reversed in the short term. What can end, however, is the subservience of those in Asia to the dominant western worldview. There is a dire need to challenge the current mainstream narrative – a worldview based on 20th century geopolitical distortions wholly unsuited to the 21st century.