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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Let us not confuse any American with his government policy just as we should not confuse any other nation of people with the choice or non-choice of their leaders.

I think the importance here is to realize that a little over half the people who voted for Obama are not going to change the mindset of the other half who did not vote Obama. The Ugly American will still be around at home and abroad.

However, there is too much concern on the part of Americans about their image rather than the substance that they bring to the world. Therein lies the misunderstanding between what Americans think of themselves and what the rest of the world thinks of Americans.

Posted by Tamzin | Report as abusive

For Abbegail Eason:
A few weeks ago, my family visited Naples. A woman in a pastry shop didn’t speak Italian, so the employee was overjoyed when my 16-year-old son offered to translate (he is quad-lingual). The woman asked all kinds of ridiculous questions like, “What does the custard taste like?” When she left, she didn’t even have the courtesy to say “grazie.” The nationalities? We’re American. The woman was French.
To Ira Waxmann, who bless his heart is still fighting the two-Americas fight: You should know that when people ask my nationality, I always say, “I’m from the United States.” “Ah,” the foreigners always say, “You’re American.” Sorry, Ira. In the absence of a term like “Unitedstatsian,” I’m afraid this one is a lost cause.
I have lived 17 years outside the United States, and frankly the Ugly American thing doesn’t bother me. I get a big kick out of the intricate plots that foreigners think the CIA has cooked up in a bunker somewhere. Foreigners usually have such a potted view of what it means to be American.
The problem with Bush II is that I began to wonder what it meant to be American. Wars of aggression? Torture? Refusal to tackle environmental issues? The list goes on. Barack Obama is not only president-elect; he was a lecturer on Constitutional law. He might not change the perception of the Ugly American. But he will, I have no doubt, restore America to the principles that have been absent for too long.

Posted by Barbara | Report as abusive

OK. I, like Robert DiLallo, live in New York. But please don’t lump me into this self-important moniker Mr. DiLallo entitles “New Yorker, or any liberal-minded, educated American.” I guess I’m liberal and I have advanced degrees, but I think adopting the tone that says “I’m so enlightened and brilliant” is exactly part of what people outside the US – and even outside our little island of Manhattan – find arrogant. So, Mr. DiLallo has “to be polite, if a tad brusque, to function in a crowded, busy, expensive city”? If he’s so busy, where does he ever find the time to write his rambling diatribe?

Posted by Fred | Report as abusive

“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”…
What a stupid idea!!! why would i envy a country whith the weakest healthcare system of all developped countries, a country sending his children to death for illegal wars, a country with no real democracy, with death penalty, the highest crime rates, with almost no paid vacations, a country where the retired people have to work till their death, where going to school can be as dangerous as walking in kabul streets…
Yes, all the world envy this…

Posted by rodrigo | Report as abusive

oh pish posh. the rest of the world celebrates Obama’s election because they see him as an inexperienced politician and hope to take advantage of his seious naivete.

President-Elect Obama will need to be reminded — frequently — that his job (his ONLY job) is to protect and promote the interests of the United States and not to engender warm, fuzzy, kumbaya feelings in the rest of the world. If that happens while he does his primary job, fine; it is not and should not be an overriding or principle concern and “will the rest of the world like us” should not even cross his mind! I and most other Americans feel no obligation to apologize for our standing in the world. As I recall, that were and are many countries who are happier than pigs in it when they need us to fight their fights and save their citizens. WE are the greatest nation on the Earth and the rest of the world just wants to be. Mr. Obama would be wise to remember that.

Posted by Carla | Report as abusive

“Americans have many fine qualities. A capacity to see ourselves as others see us is not high among them.” From a column by Patrick Buchanan

Posted by Scott | Report as abusive

It’s no way about individual citizens (you’re as nice as all the others!), it’s about the nation. How comes that a rich nation as the US is not willing to accept Kyoto contracts even having California doing well with some of the strictest environmental laws? Why can the US complain about human rights in China and have Guantanamo not controlled at all? Why does the US not accept the International Court of Justice and has zero contribute to the International Criminal Court but has no problems with extraterritorial impacts of its own law system? Why had the US strict anti apartheid rules but nothing done for their own rural black underclass? It’s like the US has a white image of it’s nation and a black one of the rest of the world. But if the US does want the others to improve then it should do its homework first. Only then it will be the model it once was. And in the fantastic case that customs officials will become as nice as in China, even traveling to the US would become more attractive again.

Posted by Urs E. | Report as abusive

In response to Carla…Bullocks! We cannot act like a spoiled star athelete with no regard for the position we stand in as a role model, by default, and expect our “star-persona” to last. If we have learned nothing from the pitfalls of the last eight years let us learn emphatically that pride will most certainly come before the fall. (Rome was probably the best example of the lesson unlearned.)

Posted by John | Report as abusive

It’s hard to feel as much a part of the world as Europeans claim to be when America is clear on the other side of the world. I’m sure all of the states in the USA feel as close to each other as the countries in the European Union, if not closer.

It’s easy to feel close to regions to which you can drive or take a train. Less so if getting there requires 20 hours on an airplane.

America has a bad image because of its arrogance.

I live in Canada. Their embassy in my capital is built like a fortress, defacing our downtown. That would be something I could live with, except that following 9/11 they coerced (bullied) our local government to shut down the lanes in some of our busiest roads. It was entirely unnecessary, even without the road blocks the embassy already had a fifteen foot fence, a spacer, and a perimeter of car-stopping pilons.

Of course, that’s a little thing. On the national level, Americans are bullying us to push through their policies in our federal government. If we don’t, we are threatened with visa-only entry to the US. It’s a silly threat, but this is how we are dealt with.

It doesn’t help that Americans are seen as ignorant. I used to work in the travel industry. Some didn’t even know the countries in North America! They thought Quebec was *another* country. Jesus. And the amount of people who asked me what church our Parliament was. It was always exclusively the Americans who were this bad, regardless of the mixture of people I dealt with.

I don’t know any Canadian who would envy the Americans. Sure it’s a great country to live in if you’re rich. I would never want to give up the notion of universal healthcare (which despite American propaganda – works!) or cheap education. Or a slightly more balanced media. Or an aversion to violence, guns, and killing. Or equal rights for all, whether you’re black or gay.

Posted by Julien | Report as abusive

To Roddrigo. Here is your quote:

“A country with no real democracy, with death penalty, the highest crime rates, with almost no paid vacations, a country where the retired people have to work till their death, where going to school can be as dangerous as walking in kabul streets…
Yes, all the world envy this…”

You don’t say in which country you live and my question to you is: Are there long lines in your capital, of people queueing up to get visas? Is there a long wait time on the telephone for people who want to make visa appointments?

How do you explain that more people want to visit, or work in, the United States than any other country on the globe? Is it just because salaries tend to be higher? Is it because people actually LIKE such stuff us Disneyland? Is it because America-bashers are just as hypocritical as those who say America is that shining city on the hill?

Posted by Fecundo | Report as abusive

Much of what is associated with and disliked about the American people is at least symbolically countered by the recent election of Obama, but is this really a long-lasting phenomenon ?

Anti-Americanism is an expression of the arguably justified frustration of non-American states that has its natural roots in power games( the dominated both disliking and admiring the dominator – frustration) and it’s justifiability in the Texan jack-ass, “let’s make the world a better place in our own image” behavior America has, politically to culturally to many other “-ally”. Obama’s election expresses a common will within the American people to cut down on the “justifiable” side of the anti-American causes. Or does it ?

Why did Americans vote for Obama ? Was it because of the same reasons people around the world appreciate the deed ? Was it simply because Americans felt the need to once more feel proud and confident in a president that seems to have more skill and natural ability than a fifth grader at a spelling-bee contest ?

It seemed to me that the general excitement about Obama was somewhere in the lines of “finally we can show we’re not that awful, that we can vote for a non-white, non-republican”, apart from the policy debates, or Obama’s charisma. Maybe it’s because he was taller than any other candidate, as a friend suggested. But how much of the voter’s choice is a promise to the world that things will “change” ? The input of American people has much to do with the “say” they have in the running of their state, and “say” is something many can do, and will do, sufficient to cause contradiction, on which governments thrive, being offered the opportunity to choose whatever convenient and blame it on the :)) other side of the debate. People in US can do very little about the running of the country, especially because they live the illusion of being able to do much/more etc.

So while the world is celebrating the symbolism( and not the policies) of the newly-elected, all that really matters is what the new guy is going to do. How does this affect anti-Americanism ?

Ironically, it does depend on Obama, although whatever he does do to solve the incredible mess his country is in, anti-Americanism will still sustain itself from the memories of the past or from any acute fact of the present.

People need to know that what they intensely but pointlessly desire is tainted.

“Raising the issue above the issue”, I would say that the story of states is no longer about states, no longer about institutions or the people for which they stand, but it is about people who are in control, the ones feeding the axioms of America, defining its mechanisms, to the best of their interest.

Posted by Dante | Report as abusive

With all due respect, Mr. Debusmann, the only “Ugly American” are columnists as yourself! So eager to identify the citizens of the USA who travel abroad as arrogant, loud-mouth, ignorant scum. We have travelled overseas and we believe in the “Golden Rule.” We respect all peoples and even try to learn their langugage, tip well and try to learn from them about their beloved countries. However, sometimes, no matter how hard you want to please the folks across the seas, there will be some that will continue to dislike and are jealous of the “American Way”. We are truly happy and proud we are Americans and have the opportunity to state “Our Say”! Thanks for allowing us to comment!

Posted by Bob, Maria Elena Friskel | Report as abusive

I often read people’s comments on topics like this one and, invariably, someone harps on our “hijacking” of the use of the term “American.” I think we should hold some sort of global poll to determine, once and for all, what should be considered an appropriate title for citizens of that middle country in North America. I’ll vote for “Staties.”

Posted by Justin | Report as abusive

“WE are the greatest nation on the Earth and the rest of the world just wants to be” Carla
I rest my case….arrogance thy name is America.

Posted by jordyn | Report as abusive

“I rest my case….arrogance thy name is America.”


America is the greatest nation on Earth Jordyn. That is why people wait for years to come here. Calling America arrogant doesn’t change that fact. Maybe you have a slight case of envy? Or if in fact you live in America, a case of self loathing induced by 4 years of leftist indoctrination at our fine universities? In any case you don’t have to be like us. We won’t force you to. We just recommend it.

Posted by Churchill | Report as abusive

I’d like to point out that although Europeans love to criticize the “arrogant self-absorbed American” traveling abroad, Europeans themselves are quite arrogant and insensitive when they travel abroad as well. I’m an American who grew up in Thailand and Italy. As a child and teen living in Thailand, I was very aware of how modesty is central to Thai culture (and most Asian cultures in general), yet hordes of Europeans came to Thailand walking around half-naked in the city and went topless on the beaches. Since I spoke Thai, I would hear from Thais all the time complaining about how rude and vulgar Europeans were.

I’m not a prude, but whenever I travel to Asian & Middle Eastern countries, I always make an effort to dress modestly so that I respect their culture. However, many Europeans do not. If they want to criticize Americans for being insensitive when in foreign countries, then I’d suggest Europeans try being more sensitive when they visit countries like Thailand where wearing bikinis, much less going topless, is frowned upon.

Posted by laurel nyc | Report as abusive

I’m an Australian and I wanted to state my belief that the “Ugly American” myth is just that – a myth. It never existed in the first place, except in the minds of fervent anti-Americans.

Americans abroad, on the whole, are far more respectful and courteous to their hosts and their host’s culture than the hosts are, should they visit the United States. Much more so than Australians and Brits, that much is for certain.

As for those people from developing countries, they make little or no effort to respect locals when traveling abroad. If you don’t know that, I suggest that you haven’t traveled very far.

Posted by Michael MacConnell | Report as abusive

I am a hedge fund manager. What is an American?

Posted by John Blodbrett | Report as abusive

I spend 200 days out of the year traveling to different parts of the world as a public speaker. Once in a while I will run into a “rude American” who is raising their voice in a hotel lobby while they are discussing business on their cell phone or I might find a “rude American” voicing their opinion in an airport after their bags have been lost. But, I must say that while these individuals are not our best ambassadors, most Americans I run into have a genuine respect for the people they meet and the countries they visit. It is unfortunate that the world looks at the obnoxious few and believes that this is typical. Before you express your own opinions of the “Ugly American” let me ask you this. Out of all the nations in the world, which country would you say spends more money each year, decade after decade, towards helping their starving, homeless, thirsty and helpless neighbors? Not only that, but this country offers these generous gifts not as a loan but a sign of good faith while the rest of the world returns to us not food, water or aide, but harsh criticisms of behaviors that are as unfair as the media who reports it.