The unbearable arrogance of the world's only superpower

THE TRIUMPH of the United States in this American-dominated century has been good for Britain and good for the world. America, as its most famous historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, once observed, is Great because America is Good. But American goodness is being tarnished. In dealing with foreigners, the United States increasingly appears at best insensitive, and at worst, bullying. The most obvious example is the possibility of a trans-Atlantic trade war over bananas, and a separate dispute which could end up with Concorde being banned from US airports.

Trade disputes are always nasty, and British people are open-minded enough to suspect that the US will eventually be proved right over the banana saga. We have a sceptical view of European Union bureaucracy and in a few weeks, the World Trade Organisation may indeed conclude that Europe has breached international trade rules. But the jury is - literally - still out. Due process, a cornerstone of the laws of all civilised countries, has not been completed. Until the WTO verdict, America's conduct in threatening tariffs on cashmere knitwear and other goods looks like an 800-pound gorilla staging a temper tantrum. The Clinton administration babbles that Europe must "play by the rules" while effectively insisting that only American rules really count.

The dressing-up of American interests as if they were international moral imperatives is not new, but it is emerging in an especially naked form under the Clinton administration. Their attitude towards the small Caribbean banana producers is extraordinary. Last Friday, the Prime Minister of St Lucia expressed fears that his island's economy could be wrecked by US action. Unemployed Caribbean men might take to the drug trade as a way of making a living. Privately, this has been a worry for months among British diplomats. One very senior British diplomat says the banana row is the most bitter dispute he can recall between London and Washington - as bad as the 1983 disagreement over the US invasion of Grenada - and that the Americans just won't listen to reason.

Yet immediately following the statements by the St Lucian Prime Minister, I interviewed a spokesman from the US Trade Representative's office in Washington which is at the centre of the dispute. He quickly brushed off the concerns of the Caribbean banana producers, in effect suggesting that the United States knows better about the economic interests of the region than the people who actually live there. This is as patronising as the British in the days of the Raj, and - again like the British a century ago - American insensitivity to foreign opinion stretches far deeper.

Last week saw the acquittal on manslaughter charges of US Marine pilot Captain Richard Ashby. He flew a military aircraft into the cable which held up a gondola above the Italian ski resort of Cavalese a year ago, killing 20 people. Ashby was supposed to be flying at a top speed of 517 mph and an altitude of 2000 feet. He hit the cable at 621 mph and was just 370 feet above the valley floor, yet a US military jury found him not guilty. "If those accused are not guilty," the Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema complained, "then we would like to know who is." The Mayor of Cavalese, Mauro Gilmozzi, called the verdict "a profound injustice, an affront to common sense and an insult to the families of those who died".

The Italians wanted to try Captain Ashby themselves, but the Pentagon cited NATO treaty provisions and flew him back to North Carolina. It is, frankly, inconceivable that if an Italian pilot killed 20 American citizens in Aspen or Vail, he would escape punishment. If America is so reluctant to see its soldiers tried abroad, even in a friendly Nato country, you can imagine the virtual impossibility of the United States ever signing up to any international human rights regime which could lead to soldiers facing charges for their actions during combat.

But if irritating Britain and Italy in the past few days is not enough, it was also Germany's turn to feel scorned. The state of Arizona gassed to death a German-born convicted murderer Walter LaGrand despite strong protests from Germany's justice minister. She criticised the United States for ignoring international treaties and called the execution barbaric.

Now our imperial pretensions are long gone, the British can joke about 19th-century arrogance, the "white man's burden", and British newspaper reports of fog in the Channel ensuring that the Continent is cut off. But at the end of the 20th century, the United States displays all the imperial and insular insensitivity of Palmerston's Britain.

Last year, at crucial stages in the Lewinsky affair, Bill Clinton invented his own gunboat diplomacy. He ordered Cruise missile strikes against a terrorist base in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Washington has never produced any credible evidence that the Sudanese factory was making chemical weapons, but the US government has not apologised for blowing it to pieces.

In a one-superpower world, there is no way of holding the Clinton administration to account, nor is there much of an outcry in the media about America acting tough in faraway countries full of troublesome foreigners. We have almost daily bombings of Iraq, with Britain tagging along as a partner. At least 17 Iraqi civilians have been killed and, to the annoyance of Turkey, the main oil pipeline from Iraq has been destroyed. In taking on Saddam, as so often this century, the United States is firmly on the side of Good against Evil, though the policy towards Iraq is arguably as flawed as the policy which has kept Fidel Castro in power in Cuba for 40 years. But if it is in British interests to lend a hand against the Iraqi tyrant, we still have cause to worry.

Our role looks to many Arabs as if we are merely giving a multi-lateral gloss to what is effectively an American show. The greatest superpower in the history of the world is not always right. When it is wrong, it rarely admits it. And when it is right, the perceived arrogance of unchecked American power might yet prove unbearable. With the confidence of a sleepwalker, the Clinton administration seems to regard foreigners in much the same way as Ronald Reagan did after a visit to Latin America in 1982.

"You'd be surprised," Reagan said. "They're all individual countries." You'd be surprised.

Gavin Esler is a presenter on BBC News 24 and author of `The United States of Anger'

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