With Obama as President, Will Americans Get a Warmer Reception Overseas?
Ask Rolf: Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel and the world
01.16.09 | 10:07 AM ET
Now that the Bush era is over and Obama is set to be president, will life get easier for American travelers overseas?
—Erin, Madison, Wisconsin
This is a fair question, but it kind of presumes that Americans have suffered extraordinary travel hardships because of Bush, and that’s not really the case. As disastrous as the Bush presidency has been for America’s international reputation, individual American travelers have been doing just fine on the road. I’ve traveled more or less nonstop for the past eight years, and I can attest that people the world over are pretty good at discerning individual Americans from American politics. Granted, I’ve endured plenty of tongue lashing from people who despise U.S. foreign policy under the Bush administration, but this has all happened at a purely rhetorical level. I’ve never felt physically threatened as an American traveling internationally, and only on rare occasions have I felt unwelcome.
So when we talk about things getting “easier” for American travelers under Obama, we’re really talking about the rhetorical-emotional realm of reputation and respect. In short, we’re all hoping—with distinctly American optimism—that the rest of the world will finally begin to love us as enthusiastically as we love ourselves. Since this rosy expectation was never all that realistic to begin with, Obama’s tenure as president is not likely to revolutionize Americans’ travel experiences in the collective sense. Even with Bush gone, there will be no shortage of people eager to criticize American travelers for simply being American.
Admittedly, Obama’s election victory has already done much to rejuvenate our international image. Whereas Bush was frequently bellicose and inarticulate, Obama has been measured and thoughtful. Whereas Bush projected a startlingly parochial view of the world, Obama exudes an instinct for global-minded statecraft. Bush’s ascendancy was emblematic of insider privilege that long predates the American nation; Obama’s ascendancy was emblematic of the American Dream itself—and the symbolic weight of his electoral triumph has not been lost on the rest of the world.
But symbolism alone isn’t going to redeem Americans in the eyes of their foreign hosts and fellow travelers. Obama will soon have to make tough policy decisions, and global criticism is sure to follow. Moreover, anti-American sentiment was never purely about politics and foreign policy; it’s always been just as much about good old-fashioned cultural stereotyping—some of it reality-based, much of it standard-issue prejudice. A little over 175 years ago, an Englishwoman named Frances Trollope published a travel book that portrayed Americans as materialistic, culturally inferior morons. “Domestic Habits of the Americans” became a bestseller in Britain not because it was an accurate depiction of life in the United States, but because it seamlessly reaffirmed the cartoonish prejudices upper-class Brits already harbored about the American people. Nearly two centuries later, America’s sprawling global influence has only made this cartoon vision stronger. In many parts of the world, “America” is less a place than it is a metaphor for all things loud, flashy, superficial, arrogant, self-absorbed and insincere in one’s own home culture. Presidential politics aside, we often have to answer for this cartoon rendering of America when we travel into the world.
I’m not saying this to be pessimistic, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that Americans are the only nationality to attract half-baked prejudices on the road. I just hope that American travelers will remain realistic as they head out into the world at the dawning of this new presidency.
Fortunately, dealing with anti-American sentiment of all stripes is a time-honored rite of passage for American travelers. Whether or not these sentiments are justified is less important than how we react to them: not with defensiveness and denial, but a willingness to listen and question and display by humble example what Obama (by way of Abraham Lincoln) has called the “better angels” of our national nature.