Barack Obama and The Ugly American

By Bernd Debusmann
November 12, 2008

bernddebusmann3–Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own–

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Fifty years ago, a pair of American writers published a novel that trained a critical spotlight on U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. The book, by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, became a bestseller and its title, “The Ugly American,” turned into an enduring label.

It’s been a dual-purpose label, first primarily pasted on inept American officials abroad and later on the kind of traveler who would irritate the natives with boorish manners and garish clothes, feeding anti-American sentiments around the globe.

Will they disappear, or fade, after the United States elected as its next president a black man who has described himself as a citizen of the world? The euphoric international reaction to Barack Obama‘s victory suggest that America’s star will shine more brightly, at least temporarily, than it has in decades.

As Obama put it in his victory speech: “A new dawn of American leadership is at hand.”

Within minutes of the results, American television viewers were treated to what have become rare images from abroad: large crowds happily waving – rather than burning – American flags.

Cheers for a charismatic young man who said his election showed that “America is a place where all things are possible” came from countries where a similar feat is a difficult to imagine. A French president of Algerian extraction? A Turk as German chancellor? A prime minister of Pakistani descent running Britain? A Moluccan in charge of the Netherlands?

“Everywhere I’ve been this year – from Jerusalem to Japan to Colombia to Italy and back again – I’ve heard people essentially say that America is an overweight white plutocrat who is not only out of touch with the world but also shows no signs of wanting to grow closer to it,” the British writer Pico Iyer said in an essay in Time magazine.

The image, he said, was unfair but potent.

What better antidote to the idea of an out-of-touch overweight white plutocrat than a rake-thin black president who says he wants to “build new bridges across the world” and is seen by many as the incarnation of “cool.”


There are already voices who say the global goodwill Obama now enjoys cannot last and that there are limits to what a president can do to change the United States’ image. True enough, but there is no better example than President George W. Bush of a U.S. leader’s tremendous power to affect perceptions.

The speed with which he managed to turn almost universal sympathy for the United States after September 11, 2001, into almost universal detestation was remarkable. By 2004, goodwill had evaporated so completely that a British mass circulation newspaper, the Daily Mirror, marked Bush’s re-election with a front page that showed a picture of the president over the headline “How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?”american_nov2008-w

No such rebukes for the American electorate in 2008. What was remarkable in 2008 was how quickly Americans abroad sensed a change of mood. On the night of November 4, American expatriates posted jubilant messages to social networking sites like Facebook saying it was cool to be American again.

Some expressed relief at no longer having to pretend to be Canadian, a long-time ruse to avoid being stereotyped. It is particularly popular among Americans of backpack-travel age and among those traveling in areas where anti-American sentiment runs particularly high.

Numerous opinion polls have tracked the steady decline of America’s image. One, in April 2008 by the BBC and the University of Maryland, found that people in 23 countries saw the United States’ influence in the world more negatively than that of North Korea. Hello, Washington, you have a problem!

Almost all the surveys point to foreign policy — the war in Iraq, the scandal of the Abu Ghraib prison, Guantanamo — as the principal reasons for disenchantment. While that front has been static, private organizations have launched various initiatives to tackle the image problem on a more personal level.

The non-profit organization Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA), for example, has distributed more than 200,000 copies of its “World Citizen’s Guide” to corporate travelers, with 16 tips that are a mirror image of the behavioral patterns that earned Americans a boorish reputation in the first place.

BDA’s founder, advertising executive Keith Reinhard, is convinced that “our collective personality is one of the causes of anti-Americanism. We are seen as loud, arrogant and completely self-absorbed.”

Fifty years later, that echoes a character in “The Ugly American”: “A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land…They are loud and ostentatious. Perhaps they are frightened and defensive; or maybe they are not properly trained and make mistakes out of ignorance.”

Another job on the president-elect’s long list of things to change.

(You can contact the author at

(Illustration by Brice Hall)

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Marc is a fool. He like to make black & white comparisons where when something is not totally white, then it is black. This tactic is often used by people who are trying to sell a viewpoint by saying “can you guarantee…”. Well Marc there are no guarantees and the world is not black and white.

You claim the the US supported Duvalier only for business reasons, but what other prospects would you suggest? Over throw him? How about ignore him? Why not go around him and aid the Haitians (oops! that US would be blamed for covertly trying to subvert Haiti). Best would be to let them die.

As for WW2 you make me laugh! Here you WANT the US to use armed force. Guess because it would be to your advantage and Haiti would not eh? In fact there was strong internal US opposition to entering the war and trying to solve Europe’s problems, again.

Abu Garib and Gitmo are small potatoes compared with the Gulags and German death camps and Japanese death marches. The Gitmo prisoners were caught with AK-47s and explosives, or were they just going shopping?

I am not sure which companies you mean by “rape and pillage”. Would that be the International Rape and Pillage Corporation”? In fact European governments and European corporations lead the way. Look at Africa. Colonial Europe slaughtered and raped ruthlessly, but you don’t hear anything about that. In South America the Spanish wiped out whole civilizations in their quest for gold. The Russians killed millions and the Germans brought killing and slavery to new heights. The Japanese enslaved the Koreans and Chinese and still consider them as second class. The US has been very mild compared to the world’s record, but is singled out because they are a people and a country with a conscience. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.

I have lived in Europe for decades. One point is clearly seen. The US is seen as the “grandparents of the world”, or at least Europe. Europeans expect the US to do everything (e.g. Balkans) when there is trouble, but when they “drop their ice cream” the US is expected to “give them theirs”. It is also very fashionable to blame political, economic and social problems on the US. In fact everyone uses the US as an excuse. I suspect this excuse is taught in the schools.

People in Europe love to criticize the US as being full with KKK members, but then just last week there was a neo-Nazi demonstration in Germany with 500+ people. When was the last time the KKK had such a demonstration? This fact is never reported in European news because it goes against the grain of blaming the US.

The US has involved themselves in other countries and sometimes it hasn’t been 100% successful. On the other hand what would have happened to Germany, UK and the rest of Europe, Japan and Korea to mane some if the US did as the Europeans now demand? Or perhaps that doesn’t count because “it would have been alright anyway”, “we were just kidding”.

Posted by Eric | Report as abusive

“Some expressed relief at no longer having to pretend they were Canadian”? American arrogance in a nutshell.

Eric, your 100% correct. Where would the rest of the world be without us to clean up after their messes? I suppose since America is so hated that we should have never helped in WW1 WW2 Bosnia Somalia, etc. Europeans forget so quickly. Let them figure out their own problems next time they get invaded or stepped on. They don’t appreciate shit.

Posted by HannibalBarca | Report as abusive

again & again Americans show that they don’t care about the rest of the world, if they did they might take time to learn about other countries, cultures etc…Sarah Palin proved this during the election when she didn’t know Africa was a continent. what do you people learn in school anyway(nothing but americanism)Educate yourselves and maybe people/other countries might start to like you.

Posted by steven salter | Report as abusive

Hey Jordyn,
Speak for yourself, I’m from a little country in the South Pacific too and we need American tourists and money. So don’t make a blanket statement because not everyone in the South Pacific agrees with you!
It appears from the submitted comments, that there is a lot of envy and jealousy over the USA. Especially from the Europeans and Canadians…. oh thats right Canadians are Americans too!

Posted by Mattimat | Report as abusive

“Ugly”, “Beautiful” — whatever — the US remains the yardstick by which such banterers are measured. What’s funny is that it’s not the US that does the measuring — it’s only ingrates or the misinfrmed that tend to measure themselves. I question this “journalist’s” motive — is it a misplaced petty grievance from centuries past? Or simply ride a hate band wagon? Whatever the origin of the chip, pity! Heaven knows the the antagonistic stereotyping pissing match that could unfold – no nationality is safe – but how unifying, constructive & value add would that be? If you don’t have any intelletual insights that warrant an OpEd, you might want to limit the hyperbole to your local pub crew & leave the OpEd space for those better suited for writing insghtful commentary. The sooner we lay down antagonistic stereotypes, regardless of their origin, the sooner we can embrace people for who they are – the majoity of which are terrific individuals, regardless of their origin.

Posted by CB | Report as abusive

Whenever someone says that the hazing in the prison in Iraq is the reason for anti-american sentiment it bothers me that the beheading of an american on TV never managed to make the top 10 of reasons for supporting america in Iraq. I think international opinion is too fickle and self-absorbed to factor in.

While there may be “Ugly Americans” the fact of the matter is that UGLY extends everywhere you look, assuming you choose to look for it. Rather, those looking pick and choose.

Resentment of america IS about the fact that our people perhaps take for granted the blessings they have and, as a result, come across as too nonchalant about it. This looks like arrogance to some. Americans tend to think that what they have is available to everyone and it is an individual responsibility for their circumstance.

I must be noted that, while the availability of international travel has opened up significantly for the average american, historically, americans have been represented abroad mostly by business travelers at the upper management level. They bring with them a different perspective than the “average” american.

Posted by Ray | Report as abusive

America is no longer a superpower….that’s why it’s increasingly becoming less hated…as si,ple as that. As for the pathetic Americans abroad…they have all my pity.

Posted by cris | Report as abusive

Honestly, I don’t think Europeans treat Americans any worse than their neighbors. Lot of xenophobia there as they tend to cling to their culture and distinguish themselves from their neighbors.

I am not saying it is okay to make fun of persons different from one’s self (whether American, European, or whatever), but we ought not always take it so personally. I mean look at us with our “Freedom Fries” and nicknames for Italian Americans and how we maligned the Irish, Native Americans, Mexicans, and African Americans, etc. I live on the West Coast and here people make fun of persons for simply living inland from the coast and what not. Really, we are all more alike than we are different!

Posted by Carolyn B. | Report as abusive

I read an interesting anecdote about several large empires: Roman, British, French and American.

The Romans and British wanted to be feared, the French wanted to be admired, and curiously, the Americans wanted to be liked.

It is very difficult to be liked when we are hypocritical in so many areas. However, putting the U.S. to an impossible test, such as the one Marc has done, is not very fair. After all this is a nation state, not the televangelist chatting about family values and acting the hypocrite when no one is looking. Marc, I ask you to put the U.S. into perspective against other nations, current and former. Could you really say that the U.S. has acted so differently from them? The sooner people take their faith away from the government/nation, the happier they might be, and may I dare say, more American.

Posted by Josh A | Report as abusive

Reid: yes, I’m sure the Chileans (1973) were “more free” after the US backed and financed Pinochet’s rise to power through assassination of Allende. I’m sure the people of Ecuador (1963), Brazil (1964), Congo (1965, Mobutu), Haiti (1991, 2004) etc. etc. etc. were much more free after the US backed military overthrows of those democratically elected governments. I’m sure the Iranians (1953) were “more free” after the Americans deposed their democratically elected leader Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh and installed the last Shah of Iran, whose abuses led directly to their 1979 revolution and their current theocratic state. The list goes on, and on, and on, for every single country in Central and South America except Uruguay, and for many others elsewhere as well.

Yes, all blows for freedom and democracy, I’m sure. That must be why democratically elected governments in previously free nations were almost invariably replaced by repressive, homicidal military regimes.

If America is all about taking up arms against repression, how do you explain US being so friendly with so many different incredibly repressive regimes all over the world? All of these have one thing in common: they allow US corporations to operate in their territory with impunity. Whereas free, peaceful, democratic regimes are quickly overthrown through direct and indirect American intervention (your CIA has a lot to answer for) if they dare to try to stop American corporations from raping and pillaging as they see fit.

That’s the American legacy around the world. For the last 100 years at least. Hypocrisy in action. Big words about freedom and democracy, while action after action that yells out the contrary.

There have been moments when you reversed the trend. You got a lot of credit for finally (although it took 2 years of Europeans dying and a Japanese attack to do so) coming into WWII. Of course, thanks to the Marshall Plan following the war the US was well repaid for its efforts, but you were forgiven that. You were in the good books at that point and for many years afterwards. Americans were even respected then. Unfortunately, the USA has long since pissed away that karma credit.

Because I DO read history, not just the propaganda spewed out by ignorant American nationalists. You should too, if you wish to look less foolish to an audience that knows there is more to the world than Fox News. I know many of your countrymen already understand this. It’s time more of you did.

Posted by Marc | Report as abusive

Note that my comments are meant to try to show you WHY Americans are disliked around the world – at least the over 200 cities in a couple dozen countries I’ve visited around the globe. As I have several very good American friends, I’ve tried to understand why they chose to hide their nationality when they travelled. I came to understand why people dislike Americans so much today. It’s not because people are “envious”, but because you have managed to really piss people off with your two-faced rhetoric and outright lies since WWII, and your deliberate attempt to rewrite history to suit yourselves.

To claim that the USA is “the best” is nothing more than a propaganda lie to a gullible population. When you grow up and realize that, then we can move forward. Like every country, your country and governments have serious faults that need work. Only when Americans admit this and start to correct these faults will people start to respect your country again. Right now, the “ugly American” abroad is cock-sure that his country is “the best” at everything. You’re wrong. Dead wrong. It’s simply “better than others in some things, much worse than others in other things”.

Most other countries I’ve travelled to realize this about their own countries. Of all the places I’ve travelled, only America persists in being blind to its own faults, and only Americans (not all, but far too many) persist in their delusion that everything their country does is “good” for the rest of the world, when in fact it’s often (not always, but often) quite the opposite.

Posted by Marc | Report as abusive

Respectfully to all 132 of you other oh so happy people, what exactly, besides sitting around yelling at each other, what exactly do you plan on doing about the current state of things.

“Injustice somewhere, is a threat to justice everywhere,” so what, and how do you propose on this note to people begin to start changing what our leaders across the globe can’t quite seem to get right?

Further arguments are on my website.

oh thats right Canadians are Americans too!

- Posted by Mattimat
nope showing your ignorance. Here’s how you tell the difference.
1.Canadians: if we don’t like our politicians we don’t elect them.
2.Americans: if they don’t like their politicians they shoot them!!
If you want their money so much…go live their with your IQ you would fit right in.

Posted by jordyn | Report as abusive