Barack Obama and The Ugly American
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.”
PRESIDENTIAL IMAGE-MAKING POWER
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?”
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 Debusmann@Reuters.com)
(Illustration by Brice Hall)
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