Adeep throat inside Panipokhari Fort insists Secretary of State Colin Powell is coming to Kathmandu of his own accord. Maybe true. But Secretary Powell's surprise call is going to be another great photo-op for Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, still euphoric over being the middle man during the historic handshake between President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee during SAARC.
In 54 years of relations between Nepal and the United States of America, no Secretary of State considered it worth his while to visit these boondocks. This time, too, the transit through Kathmandu has perhaps more to do with South Asia in general, than Nepal in particular. Or is it that the secretary just wants to catch his breath after trying to bang Indian and Pakistani heads together, and before heading off to Tokyo for Afghan fund-raising. The Americans have blown a fortune in bombing desolate places like Tora Bora to dust. Now they need the coffers of Japan, Saudi Arabia and the Europeans to help rebuild it.
If Kathmandu is just R&R for a former soldier on a mission to wage diplomatic war in the most dangerous region of the world, then we have nothing to fear from Secretary Powell's itinerary. But the mandarins at Shital Niwas should tread carefully. There is an old Nepali saying that when a powerful jamindar blesses the huts of the poor in his village, he is probably on a lookout for a new concubine.
Despite the fawning accounts that IVP-returnees unleash in the Nepali press, American assistance to Nepal has been steadily decreasing over the years. The United States is now way down on our list of donors-it ranks fifth. Much American aid is channelled through multilaterals like the World Bank and the IMF, which impose suffocating conditions on the political economy of the country. And outrageously expensive consultants ensure that much of the aid money flows back to where it came from.
Trade between Nepal and the US is not very encouraging either. The fallacy of free trade in the absence of free movement of labour can clearly be seen in the sale of millions of bottles of branded colas even to the poor who struggle to make a living in less than a dollar a day, while garment exports from Nepal to the United States languish in utter neglect. It is entirely in keeping with the tradition of free-for-all capitalism that the company with American investment produces the most expensive energy in one of the poorest countries of the world. Had Enron not gone bust, a similar fate would probably have been lying in store for the Karnali at Chisapani.
Nepal's strategic location is also of little interest to the US, when both India and China are falling over each other so desperately to woo the sole superpower. Gone are the days of the Cold War when Americans literally bank-rolled King Mahendra's political adventures with $15 million, just to keep the communists from surfacing in one more Asian hotspot.
American foreign policy these days is entirely reactive. Even an IMF official, Stanley Fischer, finds it troubling that "the United States devotes less than $10 billion a year-only a tenth of 1 percent of its GDP-to economic aid, less than half the average of other industrial countries, and a third of the average for Europe." However, it has little hesitation in footing a bill of over $1 billion a month to fight its war in Afghanistan. A war so pointless that Ralph Nader compares it to burning a haystack to find a needle, and then refusing to see that the needle is not in the ashes after all.
The guest is god for us Nepalis. But why is this particular one here? To what do we owe this darshan? What have we done to deserve this blessing?
In the value system of global capitalism, whatever is cheap is not worth its price. In the past, Nepal has always offered its support to the Americans for next to nothing. Indira Gandhi extracted $9 million from President Johnson for her understanding of America's geopolitical role in Vietnam, and still kept her anti-American image intact. A pro-American Nepal remained one of the lowest per-capita recipients of American aid-a fact that surprised Henry Kissinger no end when he came visiting. But the failure is entirely ours: we didn't know how to market ourselves.
During Secretary Powell's visit, however, we are singularly fortunate to have our own man in his camp. Ambassador Michael E Malinowski is as much of a seller as a buyer-he understands Nepalis, having served as Deputy Chief of Mission during the tenure of the feisty Julia Chang Bloch. Back then, Malinowski was the Quiet American who co-ordinated American assistance while Madam Ambassador played matchmaker to the high and mighty of the land. Ambassador Malinowski likes to tell his friends in Nepal-and he has many here-that having facilitated American relief assistance during the flood disaster of July 1993 is one of the most satisfying events of his long diplomatic career. He knows that what Nepal really needs are not helicopter gunships, but more schools, hospitals, and bridges in the countryside, and easier access to the American market for exports.
Bridges like the ones that Malinowski got flown into Nepal on giant C-5s in 1993 have more than metaphorical meaning here. In a country that is drowning in the roiling waters of poverty and apathy, and an insurgency that feeds on it, we have nothing to offer. We have nothing to ask for, except understanding that comes from over half-a-century of association.