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

Rolf Potts

Dear Rolf,

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

Dear Erin,

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.

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Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


8 Comments for With Obama as President, Will Americans Get a Warmer Reception Overseas?

Roger 01.16.09 | 3:30 PM ET

This was very well written, Rolf. I believe travelers have a mission to improve our reputation in the world. Certainly, no single politician can do this alone. We can all make a difference.

Audrey 01.17.09 | 12:30 PM ET

Very well said. Thank you. I was having a very similar conversation last night at an inauguration gathering. Having lived outside the United States for seven years, my experiences have been very similar.  Most people I’ve met are able to differentiate between the actions of a government and the actions of a people. A Tajik money changer summed it up wellt: “American politics - bad. American people - good. Tajik politics - bad. Tajik people - good.”

I completely agree with Roger as well. As my husband and I are the face America to many people we meet on the road (for some, we’re the first Americans they’ve met), we’ve unintentionally taken on the roll of citizen - or perhaps traveler - diplomat.

Pam Mandel 01.21.09 | 11:14 AM ET

I dunno, Rolf. I traveled during the Reagan/Bush years (bad), the Clinton years (good), and the Bush II years (worst ever). While I was never trapped in the people=government argument, there was a distinctive difference in the tenor of conversation during the Bush/Reagan/Bush terms.

During the Clinton years, the most I got by way of confrontation was “Don’t you have dry cleaning in your country?” But during the last administration, it was more often “What the hell are you doing? What is the matter with you people?”

It is much easier to find common ground and to build friendships while you’re traveling when you can talk about the smaller things of life. For the last 8 years, I’ve been stuck with popularity rankings and voter turn out statistics and sentences that start with “Most of the people that I know in the US don’t think that [fill in the blank].”

People have always been kind to me in spite of my government’s policy. They’ve often been curious and it’s an honor to discuss politics with those that just want to exchange ideas and understand the world better. But it’s also been a burden for me, personally, over the last eight years. I believe that opening that conversation with “Congratulations on your new president” is a much warmer greeting than, “Bush. Cheney. What the hell?”

I’d say that counts as a warmer reception, wouldn’t you? Of course, he’s only been in office, what, 18 hours as I type this. Things could change.

Sharon 01.26.09 | 6:17 PM ET

I have to agree with Pam here. During Reagan’s time, I had rough conversations re: the US and its wild west actor president while I was in the UK.  And my conversations in Asia during the most recent Bush administration were awkward to say the least.

Now everywhere I go, I am getting nothing but thumbs up and from my last trip to Italy this “I hope with your new president things can change, economy can grow in the next future, we fell more safe to travel.”

Gregory Hubbs 01.28.09 | 8:07 AM ET

Great advice Rolf, as always.

Having lived and traveled abroad from childhood, I can honestly say that I have never, ever been offended in any way by individuals from other countries in terms of what has been said to me regarding my nationality.

Perhaps it is because I go out of my way to speak or attempt to speak the language of the people I am visiting. Perhaps it is because I make fun of America and Americans as a way of disarming criticism. In France—which Americans have long caricatured as being a nation of snobbish people—I was enormously popular, in part because I was an American willing to make fun of Americans, just as the French do amongst themselves. Being secure in your identity makes self-deprecation much easier.

I fear that Americans—being such an adolescent nation and perpetually in search of identity—are so full of self-created taboos that many do not have the confidence to make fun of themselves while abroad. I think this is as true at home as abroad, but my advice is to treat the homes of people you visit with respect and never fear making fun of yourself and your country when traveling. People throughout the world often are best united in self-deprecating humor, and anyone with strong self-esteem need not be threatened by playing up the caricature to the point of absurdity.

And as Rolf has pointed out, Americans are usually judged as individuals and not by their political leadership. After all, how many governments has Italy had since WWII? How many countries have been divided between resistance fighters and collaborators? Generally, mature cultures not guided by religious fundamentalism or omnipresent tyrants judge individuals as individuals. Obama knows this first hand, having grown up as an expat: http://www.newsweek.com/id/180207.

Jim 01.28.09 | 8:44 PM ET

Leaving aside Rolf’s half-baked partisan caricatures of Bush and Obama, Americans’ reception abroad has always principally been a function of liberal/left temperament. As we’ve seen the world over, the left is generally given to a more adversarial form of political discourse. I’m not making a value judgment; I’m simply making an observation. This accounts for the different reactions among foreigners to Democratic vs. Republican administrations in the United States. Western Europe despised Reagan in much the same way it did Bush II. (For a good many people it seems “traveling overseas” means traveling in Western Europe, whose population in the main is to the left of that in the United States. In Albania and much of Eastern Europe Bush is well regarded, even celebrated.)

The more interesting question is why anyone should care about others’ opinions, particularly when they’re predicated on deep-seated envy and superficial political prejudices, as often seems to be the case. In Germany, France, and many other countries throughout the world, a shockingly large number of people—a majority in some cases—believes that the U.S. government orchestrated the September 11 attacks. Are such people worth engaging about geopolitical policy differences? Moreover, other governments have plenty to answer for, yet the prevailing social dynamic has Americans exclusively on the receiving end of political grousing from foreigners—and despairing of the fact! Why?

While it’s an admirable objective, making a good impression as a traveler should not become an exercise in obsequiousness.

Grizzly Bear Mom 02.11.09 | 1:38 PM ET

In September I traveled cheaply in Paris, staying in the 20th nieghborhood with the Arab and African immigrants.  It was fabulolus.  The French, Sundanese, and Algerians I met loved America and Americans but not Bush.  The Chinese man I met wanted to come here.  Why should people love America or our President, and why should I care?  Our conservative politics are much different than their more liberal values.  Viva La Difference!  I’ve been more offended at home because of political differences. 

Because I learned 50 words or so of French, everyone was helpful or went out of their way.  I ordered things that looked interesting on menus.  Some of it was fabulous, some not very good-just like at home!  The French even got my jokes!

Part of the poor reception is American travelers stay at the Holiday Inn, only eat cheeseburgers and never learn how to use the metro.  You can’t really experience Paris without using the metro.  Tour Eiffel and Eiffel Tower are similar words, and an eight year old should be able to decipher the metro map.  Or when riding back to town with a tour operator, my American companions asked what neighborhood we were in.  He replied “one block from your hotel.”  They said “tour guide didn’t take us down here.”  Did they need the babysitter to walk around the block? What was their intent in leaving home?   

These were the same people unmoved by thousands of graves at Normandy and the playing of “Oh beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life”, which reduced me to body wrecking sobs, thinking of all the families, including my grandparents,  whose sons never came home. 

I travel because of the PASSION it adds to my life.

Gregory Hubbs 02.11.09 | 2:04 PM ET

Bravo Grizzly Bear Mom!

Rick spoke to this directly in his excellent seminar “Travel as a Political Act” on Sunday at the New York Times travel show in New York I just attended:

http://www.nyttravelshow.com/show_attractions/travel_seminars.html

He is about to write a book by the same title which I look forward to reading.

He made one important assertion, I thought. He said that anytime a bomb is dropped by the U.S., it also bears his name, as we are all taxpayers and members of this country. This is an inescapable part of the existential realization that we are all “engaged” as Jean-Paul Sartre discussed.

But clearly the theme was about realization that multiple perspectives can and must be tolerated, and those from other countries usually are able to differentiate between the government and the individual. That has ALWAYS been my experience.

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