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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I have been an expat American living overseas for almost 30 years. Part of that time in Europe, Asia, Canada and Australia. I speak several foreign languages fluently and when in various parts of the world for any extended time, I dress to the customs of the country I am visiting.

The operative word is “visiting”. Unlike many of my American associates who come to these various places either to see me or to come on business, I have often seen a required criteria of the host country’s people to adapt to the American’s way of doing anything.

This “Ugly American” attitude is pervasive and I believe it is the basis for much of the anger and resentment that has fomented around the world toward us Americans.

Well the election of Barack Obama chnage things? Here in Australia – among the everyday citizenry – I see a new found respect and hope. Will American’s no longer be “up themselves”?, i am asked. I have no idea – but we can only hope.

Most people and colleagues I talk to globally are in a wait and see holding pattern.

I am too. But I can hope that American’s will finally realise that the world owes them nothing and that they will join the rest of the global community as equals rather than feeling above it all.


Posted by MizuInOz | Report as abusive

I lived in Germany for three years, from 2003 to 2006 (coming home to the States 4 times a year for 2 weeks) doing contracting work for a company there. While doing laundry in the hotel I was at, a Fin asked me a question where I thought he said “do you speak English?”. But his accent was so bad I did not realize he asked me “are you English?”. When I responded “Yes”, he said “Good, thank God you are not an American”. He continued to rant about how horrible Americans are.

I saw him several times throughout the next month and I never admitted that I was American, because I found this to be a rare opportunity for me to get a perspective from a European about Americans without knowing they are talking to one. He continued to rant about Americans every time he saw me, or anyone else that would listen to him (that was not an American).

There was a time that my wife and I went to visit Italy. My wife is second generation American, but all her grandparents came from Italy. As long as she did not speak, people thought she was Italian. I have a lot of German characteristics, so people there thought I was German. It helped that the car I was driving had a German license plate and I knew more German than anyone that tried to speak German with me.

While touring a church in Milan, we saw an American family. They were dressed like a typical tourist, with the big hats, shorts, and blinding colored shirts. They were loud and acted like the whole country was an amusement park for them. If this is what the rest of the world sees of us, no wonder we have such a low approval rating.

Posted by Steven | Report as abusive

Hello.. Robert DiLallo here in New York City, where, arguably, we have a chance to see and sometimes interact with every nation’s citizens as they pass by our doorsteps, literally.

That lifelong experience has led me to make a relatively simple judgment: every country has its good and bad, polite and impolite, warm and wickedly frigid individuals. Humans give and they grasp; they are aggressive and they demure, etc.

As Americans, for fairly obvious reasons, we are held to unusually strict standards. If a Frenchman or a Nigerian or a Malaysian does something here in New York to offend me, I think simply, “Idiot,” not “Idiotic Frenchman, Nigerian,” etc. If I make a faux pas in Paris, I am thought of as exemplifying some sort of national trait. No matter that I am jet-lagged, beleaguered by my nattering children, and driven to distraction by things like different driving habits, different pace of life, and other such quotidian conventions. I am not a harried fellow human being. I am an American and I have done wrong because I am an American. But leadership has had its price always and will forever.

Most of the rest of the world is remarkably insular from the vantage point of a New Yorker, or any liberal-minded, educated American, for that matter.

I have to not just tolerate, but am expected to embrace, hundreds of cultures and sub-cultures and dozens of religions. (Not only of non-Americans, but of my own fellow citizens.) I have to be polite, if a tad brusque, to function in a crowded, busy, expensive city. But, honestly, if I were a stranger lost, bewildered, and looking for a friendly face, there is no other place I’d rather be than New York. Open a map on a busy street here, and you will have a half dozen helpful strangers offering advice and counter advice. Trip and fall, and a dozen hands will pick you up. Are there bad hats? Oh yes, like everywhere else pockets are picked, people are cheated. But, the open, friendly face and hand of New York is a tangible facet of everyday life. And, I think that as routinely as New York doesn’t seem much like the rest of America, it really embodies the American spirit.

All that brings me around to this: the rest of the world is not as open and progressive as we are. While it has been and will continue to be a long hard climb to racial, ethnic and gender equality in America, we make the climb. We had a terrible Civil War over the issue of slavery. I think there are a few other societies that fight the same fight as ardently. I think our neighbor Canada does. I think Brazil, Cuba, Peru, Venezuela and to some extent, Mexico are on the long, arduous road. An associated problem for Americans is that much of the world wants us to be even more progressive. We have set ourselves up as the light that illuminates the world – history has set us up – and when that light flickers, wavers and seems in danger of going out, the world shakes its collective finger and chastises us. And while many countries and cultures have found us wanting often enough, well, believe us when we say that we find shortcomings elsewhere likewise. We’re usually not quite so obstreperous about it.

I think you are right a hundred times over that it would be very difficult for a parallel of Barack Obama to be elected in most other countries. But that observation should be extended far beyond Europe, which I like to think has at least contemplated the idea. While it was remarkable but not bizarre that a man of Japanese descent should become president of Peru, how utterly earth-shattering would it be if a Peruvian became premier of Japan? And if the descendant of a white native of Louisiana should find himself born into India – could he possibly find himself governor of the Punjab, the way Bobby Jindal of Khanpura was elected governor of perhaps the deepest of the deep southern states of the U.S.? Of course, one can go on and on. A Catholic in Iran, a Bushman in Moscow, a Vietnamese in Argentina – running for anything except their lives?

America is always becoming. It is in our nature. It is in our frontier mentality. It is in the immigrant experience. It’s even written into our constitution: “…In order to form a more perfect union…” Not perfect. Not finished. But to aim for more perfect. Bad grammar, phenomenal political theory.

To judge us by our foibles, our not infrequent political missteps, and a touch of loud-mouthed irascibility while abroad is to forget that amazing light, flickering or not.

It is also to forget that the mighty stumble, but the truly great get up, dust off and vote for someone like Obama, correcting mistakes, improving life little by little.

Posted by Robert DiLallo | Report as abusive

There’s only so much a president, or American expatriates, or private public diplomacy groups can do to change anti-American feelings. It seems to me there’s a good bit of resentment and envy that simply stems from the fact the the U.S. is powerful and its citizens rich, by comparison to others. It’s the price to pay to be part of an empire. The Brits in their heyday were unpopular, too, as were the Romans. Not to speak of citizens of the late Soviet empire, compared with whom Americans were seen as free-spending angels, even clad in Hawaii shirts.

Posted by Jacques | Report as abusive

Being an inmigrant and having experience how america steps up to the plate everytime there is an international disaster, I got to say that there is no other place where I’d rather be. Foreigners who have never visit the US, specially those from western europe, have the wrong picture of this country. Go ask the poor peasant in Central America what they think of the Army Corps building schools and bridges. Or ask about the doctors that donate their time and money to heal the sick in these poor areas of the world.

Sometimes no matter what you do, good or bad, or how hard you try, there is always a group that will not be pleased by your actions. This country remains the beacon for oportunity.

Posted by Donald Galeano | Report as abusive

I think there is some confusion here. I don’t think American tourists, expatriates etc arouse much “anti-american” passion abroad. That loud, American family in big hats is more amusing than annoying. And good for business!
The problem is the US government. The assumption is also that it has been put in place by the American people, so foreigners feel perhaps, that they have a right to hold private citizens accountable.
A comment about the excitement over the fact that a “black” (his mother doesn’t count, of course) man has been elected president: People from Africa were in those British colonies almost from the beginning, and I doubt that the independent USA would have survived without them. This can not be compared to various immigrant groups in Europe, who showed up less than 50 years ago. Even so, were not Sarkozi’s parents Hungarian immigrants to France? I suspect you would find more immigrants in European parliaments and governments than you can find in the US House, Senate and government. I think even some ex American citizens are leaders of some east European countries.

Posted by Bengt Svensson | Report as abusive

I have seen many countries of the world, and some are pleasant enough for living some part of my life, but there nothing better place for prospetious and peaceful living then the United States of America, the Land of Endless Possibilities.

Posted by Richard Arlington | Report as abusive

Americans, along with the Chinese, are high on the “annoying tourist” list for most countries worldwide. But guess who tops the list? The French.

Posted by Sean | Report as abusive

That sobriquet wont go away as long as you have the “… kind of traveler who would irritate the natives with boorish manners …”. Most won’t care about the clothing, but you’ve got to respect the natives in their own lands. You shouldn’t arrogantly flaunt your ignorance in front of the locals of a foreign place as it’s not fair to your fellow travelers, who are mostly ok folk and aren’t ‘ugly Americans’. BTW: you can meet them flying Denver to Miami, you don’t need to fly overseas!

In a more general sense it won’t go away as long as we act out our imperialist tendencies. Things like Iraq and our historic interference in other countries contributes to it. Nobody is going to complain about things done in self-defense, but country destabilization is remembered and we have to watch out which strongman or regime we wind up supporting for strategic reasons. Look where it has got us…

Don’t expect miracles from Mr. Obama. He’s the next POTUS, not the next Messiah…

I give Obama’s honeymoon with the world (or much of it) about six months. And then it will come to the foreign policy issues that haven’t changed – Washington’s love affair with Israel; violations of other countries’ sovereignty in the pursuit of “the war on terror”; protectionist policies favouring American farmers etc.pp. The double standards of U.S. foreign policy won’t change with Obama, though he will enjoy the benefit of the doubt for a while. That said, there’s a need to define “anti-Americanism.”

Does it mean the kind of sentiment that propels people to decapitate Americans, such as Daniel Pearl? Does it mean people demonstrating in front of the World Bank against “the Washington consensus”? Does it mean people telling telephone pollsters that the U.S. is more menacing than North Korea? Does it mean people pointing out that the U.S. health care system is inferior to that of Cuba?

I always wondered what would happen if a U.S. official confronted with a crowd of tens of thousands chanting “Down with America” opened a large trunk filled with Green Cards and said “if anyone wants a Green Card, stop shouting and step forward.”

It’s odd but true that the most pro-American people (not governments) in the Western Hemisphere are Cubans and Venezuelans. Anyone has an explanation for that?

Posted by Pedro Pan | Report as abusive

First, a disclaimer: I voted for McCain. I didn’t believe Obama has what it takes to be the President of the greatest power on Earth. I still don’t.
Yet I wish Obama all the success and all the luck he can possibly get, including, but not limited to, in foreign relations. His success is our success, and his failure would have really bad consequences for all of us in the US and the whole world. It’s evident that now, when the US economy is sneezing, the economies around the world are down with a bad fever. It’s also evident that now that very few allies are enthusiastic about helping the US to police the world, protect, and when necessary impose the law and order (one can argue if the US should, or even has the right to do so, but the fact is – that’s how it was done ever since WWI), the world became less orderly and more dangerous place. Yes, Bush Jr. was not exactly successful at improving the perception of America and Americans around the world. Hope Obama will be better at that. But the perception is still secondary or even tertiary to security and economy. If he will manage to succeed at THAT (and I am quite doubtful, but still hope) I might vote for him in 4 years – even though I never voted for Dems.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Hey Jacques
Powerful – how? Rich – again how? Any country can have military might that does not make them powerful in any real sense of the word. Yup you’re all rich with consumer goods, how about richness of spirit?? Want to know why there is so much anti american feeling
1. you started an illegal war for bogus reasons
2. Guantanemo – since when was torture OK or is that the powerful you’re talking about!!
3. You prop up Israel and thier again illegal occupation of the West Bank
4. You think that you’re the most powerful country on Earth!
5. You want everybody else to play by the rules but you don’t – might aint right!
The world is sick up your self absorbed ways and you know what – we in our little country in the South Pacific don’t want or need any of your power or riches.

Posted by Jordyn | Report as abusive

Having been raised in a multi-cultural environment like Hawaii, Obama understands that humility and humbleness are traits that other cultures appreciate. In Hawaii, almost everyone is a minority. The dominate races are the caucasians and the Japanese. Race and culture are a topic of daily life, undeniably in the food. It is respectful to be humble, to be a good listener, and to accept another’s culture and to be ready to share one’s culture. This is taught from the elementary school level. So, even here, in the 50th state, an “Ugly American” sticks out like a sore thumb and Obama understands this. Many who come to live, have an open, welcoming attitude, an appreciation of our differences. Those who do not have this kind of attitude, often find it difficult to assimilate,

Posted by Hawaiian | Report as abusive

Jordyn: You obviously have not traveled much and/or are completely out of touch with who constitutes the average American citizen. The election of Obama proves this.

1) I did not support the war, and I am American, therefore using “you” as an all encompassing term is incorrect.
2) I do not agree with the unconstitutional things that have occurred in Guantanamo.
3) Many Americans (millions) are concerned with the propping up of Israel.
4) I do not think most Americans view themselves as the most “powerful” country on Earth. It is all relative. Many Americans do not think that power and military might are the same thing. Please educate yourself about our charities, the selfless work of millions, and other things we have done to help our brothers and sisters around the world out of compassion (nothing more).
5) Again, many, many Americans (a full half to 3/4) have been *continuously* unhappy with the failed policies of Bush. Not just in the past month or two.

I am an American. Re-read the above. Your gross generalizations are as narrow minded as this imaginary American archetype you have created. I hope it makes you feel better about yourself by making hateful statements that are completely void of logic.

Posted by Lev | Report as abusive

Response to Jordyn:
You use ‘you’ 6 times and ‘your’ twice. Do I embody America? Because I am American do I agree with everything the government has ever done or will do? I take it as a personal insult. I did not start an illegal war or open Guantanamo. These are the policies of one administration and we as American are lucky to be able to change administrations and participate in a democracy. You need to learn the basic ability of differentiation. Have you agreed with everything your country has done?

This ‘ugly American’ is the result of one more prejudice like Blacks have experienced in the US. I have lived abroad for the past year – there are uneducated people who think that although there are 300 million Americans I am Bush’s protege – and the smart ones who don’t see me as American, but see me as me. This was the case during Bush and it will be with Obama.

Posted by Chantal | Report as abusive

First of all, Obama is not black, he is mulatto (half and half). His mother was white. The U.S. is changing its face, from white Anglo-saxon to Afro-American, now. And wait till the Hispanics get into power. It would be the reverse of the Mexican saying ” Poor U.S., so close to Mexico and full of Hispanics”.

Posted by Richard | Report as abusive

Bravo to the comment from Robert DiLallo! I agree we hold ourselves to be the illuminating light to the rest of the world. I have not lived in the USA for 5 years, and unfortunately, I have at times been guilty of saying I was Canadian, just to make my own life easier. In the days leading up to the election I was terribly ashamed at the depths to which the Republican candidate was sinking, the hatred some of the American people seemed to have against one of their own. America wouldn’t be America without diversity and integration. I now am living in Italy, and every Italian I have spoken to is overjoyed at the election of Obama. The Americans are providing an example in unity.

I do hope, however that when we travel outside the country, we can respect the cultures of the countries we visit, and try to conform a bit and not disrespect their natures. One of the habits I have most noticed abroad, is the unwillingness of the American tourist to speak another language, even a single phrase in another country. A simple please or thank you in the native tongue goes a long way.

Posted by Abbegail Eason | Report as abusive

Being a US citizen in Europe is not a liability as long as US citizens don’t view their citizenship as an asset that place the holders of US passport above the rest of the world.
For a start, please recall that there two Americas – North and South and US citizens have no more right to call themselves Americans than citizens of Peru, Canada, or Belize.

Posted by ira waxmann | Report as abusive

The “Ugly American” of novelistic infamy was not, in fact a “bad guy.” Homer Atkins was none of the things brought to mind when the revised stereotype is called upon.

He looked bad. Maybe we should seek less to look good, and more to *be* good.

And to listen less to the lawyers, and more to the engineers!

Posted by Cortland Richmond | Report as abusive

Jordyn: there’s no need to be jealous. Whether you like it or not, the US is the most powerful and richest country on earth. The fact that your country is not is no reason to hate.

Posted by Josh | Report as abusive