Ramesh Thakur

Why do the major newspapers not organise a reciprocal exchange of columns we will publish as many of your articles per month as you take of ours?

THE TECHNICAL gadget that Americans are most in need of, it's been said, is a hearing aid. Too many of them are prone to lecture, hector, and otherwise pressure much of the rest of the world, in the far from touching belief that the American way is the only way.

To be sure, America and Americans do indeed have much to be immodest about. The vibrancy, dynamism, and energy of Americans can be very infectious. The pinnacles of achievements that the United States as a country, society, and people has reached is worthy of great self-pride. Some of the rage against all things American is based on nothing more substantial than envy of the successful, as captured in the protest banner "Yankee go home and take me with you!" That said, it is just as true that, in most civilisations, humility is a greater social virtue than pride and vanity on constant public display. There must be a good reason why we have one mouth for speaking but two ears for listening.

Before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, many other governments were at the receiving end of moralising lectures, from westerners in general and Americans in particular, about the absolute inviolability of human rights, no matter how grave or real the security threats some of them faced. The subsequent trajectory of American practices and discourse shows just how shallow the understanding of and commitment to human rights was. But it also proves the point about world views being grounded in our own experiences, much more so than in any abstract conception. The world view and perspectives of western governments, scholars, and commentators changed dramatically after 9/11 with regard to the proper balance between hard and soft power, force and diplomacy, security and liberty, and unilateralism and multilateralism, compared with what their previous position had been based on theoretical arguments rather than actual experience.

The progress of history rests on the battle for supremacy of competing ideas. The power and wealth of western countries give them a dominant role in shaping the international public discourse. This is a privileged position they have earned, and the rest of us have little claim to object. But imagine if the United States had given a respectful hearing to opinion from around the world in 2002-03 on Iraq: the wasteful spilling of so much American blood and treasure might have been avoided.

Yet there is no effort by any of the mainstream U.S. media, as far as I know, to harvest international opinion on the great issues of the day for dissemination to the domestic American audience. Instead the trafficking in the opinions and thoughts of international public intellectuals is almost all one-way. This seems to rest on an implicit racist assumption in both camps. Namely, that when western and non-western values diverge, the latter are in the wrong and it is only a matter of working on them with persuasion and pressure for the problem to be resolved and progress achieved. The cognitive blindness is shown in the statement by scholars Thomas Risse and Stephen C. Ropp that "pressure by western states and international organisations can greatly increase the vulnerability of norm-violating governments to external influences." Self-evidently, only non-western governments can be norm violators; western governments can only be norm setters and enforcers. The philosophical antecedents of such beliefs lie in the 18 th-19th century theory of evolutionary progress through diffusion and acculturation from the west to the rest.

Or consider what, in some ways, is a more tragic example. A massive earthquake and tsunami struck the Indian Ocean on December 26. In the three weeks following that, the International Herald Tribune published 16 opinion articles on, or in relation to, the tragedy. Not one was by an Asian. The equally influential Financial Times published six articles, of which again not one was by an Asian. Each by itself was of very high quality, as one would expect from these newspapers. Nevertheless, it would be surprising to find that either paper has ever carried opinion and analytical pieces on a major western tragedy (9/11, the London bombing, the Madrid bombing) written solely by developing country authors.

This imbalance of voice in the international discourse has built up a dangerous sense of resentment by the silent majority of the world's peoples. Developing country governments sometimes complain about the activities of international media commentators as interference in their internal affairs and view them suspiciously as instruments of `soft' western intervention. They are surely right in the implied belief that media weight augments foreign policy tools and comprises part of what Harvard University's Joseph Nye has labelled "soft power." The U.S. is indeed a more powerful world actor for being able to draw on a rich civil society, a depth of scholarly knowledge, and a media that has market dominance and reaches into the farthest nook and cranny around the world.

Still, this begs two questions. First, should not governments learn how best to strengthen civil society in their own countries and enter into partnership with them in the pursuit of shared international goals? Why is it that non-western governments complain about biased coverage by western media instead of doing something constructive? Journalists are censored, manipulated, harassed, and sometimes even imprisoned and liquidated.

To be sure, English is the dominant medium of global communication, and the BBC and CNN are truly global brands in the world of media. Yet today they are being challenged by Al Jazeera, to the point where Washington has had a strained if not antagonistic relationship with the group in relation to its coverage of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Of the large and well-established Asian democracies, India and Japan could easily by now have supported the emergence of truly global media brands as well. Quite a few Indian journalists have world recognition but, almost without exception, they work for western print and electronic media. In its desperation to control information, news and analyses, the Indian government has effectively aborted the rise of independent Indian news services with the authority and credibility to command a global following. Not for nothing was AIR known as "All Indira Radio."

The BBC provided the model; is it the west's fault that Indians failed to emulate such a positive example? The net result is that India (like China and Japan) does indeed lack a key agent of international influence and a crucial ingredient of soft power in the modern networked world. In this respect, sadly, India is a metaphor for all of Asia. The challenge for enlightened national interest diplomacy is how best to nurture civil society and credible media so that they help to project local values and perspectives to a receptive international audience.

Second, western commentators have their columns regularly reprinted in newspapers all over the world, which is good. Readers of The Hindu have regular access to selected opinion articles from The Guardian. Should westerners not make a deliberate effort to read and listen to what the rest of the world might have to say? Should not readers of The Guardian be exposed to The Hindu's columnists? Or do we simply assume that if the rest of the world has a different opinion, it is wrong? It is clear to me, as a professor and as a high-level U. N. official, that the writings of Siddharth Varadarajan, to take just one example from these pages, do not compare unfavourably to the best that The Guardian has to offer on some of the most sensitive contemporary issues like Iran.

Hence the final question: why do the major newspapers not organise a reciprocal exchange of columns we will publish as many of your articles per month as you take of ours? Or do we share the westerners' implicit belief that what they have to say on any and every topic is important for the whole world to know; but what we have to say about our own affairs may perhaps be worth considering, but otherwise we should know our place and stay there.

(Ramesh Thakur is senior vice rector of the UN University in Tokyo. These are his personal views.)