Reviving Brand America

Rick Steves: Exploring Europe, exploring travel as a political act

09.17.09 | 11:57 AM ET

Climate activists pose as Angela Merkel and Barack Obama in Berlin (REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz)

I‘ve talked a lot recently about how America perceives Europe. Now let’s flip things around, to see how Europe perceives America. Sadly, this changed dramatically in the first decade of the 21st century.

OK, I’ll admit it: Like two-thirds of Americans—and virtually the entire rest of the planet—I was no fan of George W. Bush. While my differences with him on various philosophical and policy points were matters of personal political opinion, there’s no question that the Bush Administration’s actions severely blemished the “Brand of America”—how the U.S. is perceived overseas. People in Europe like Americans as much now as they ever did. But there’s no doubt that, throughout the Bush years, their view of the United States as a political entity took a hit.

Americans—mindful of the now-dated “Ugly American” stereotype—tend to be conscientious ambassadors of their country when traveling to Europe. And, particularly because of the Iraq War—even in the post-Bush era—many are fearful that they might receive a negative welcome, especially in France (where anti-war sentiment seemed the most vociferous). Through my tour business, I take a thousand Americans to France annually. Each year, I survey them in an email, asking, “How were you respected by the local people?” Even in the most “anti-American” times, nobody complained. The French have always given American individuals a warm welcome. They just don’t always like our foreign policy. In Europe, the mark of a friend is not someone who constantly fawns over your obvious strengths, but someone who tells you when you are off-base and disappointing them.

When other countries refuse to support U.S. foreign policy, many Americans say, “Don’t they remember how we saved them from the Nazis?” The answer is yes, absolutely they do. I was recently filming in France’s Burgundy, at a charming little mom-and-pop château. When I’m filming, get out of my way—the sun’s going down, and we’ve got work to do. But the aristocratic couple whose family had called that castle home for centuries insisted, “We must stop and have a ceremony because we have an American film crew here working in our castle.” They cracked open a fine bottle of wine and brought out—with great ceremony, as if it were a precious relic—the beautiful 48-star American flag they had hoisted over their château on that great day in 1944 when they were freed by the American troops. They implored us, “Please go home and tell your friends that we will never forget what America did for us with its heroics, its economic and military might, and its commitment to liberty.” In addition to being grateful to the U.S. for helping to free them from Hitler, Europeans also appreciate our defeat of the Soviet Union with a bold and determined battle of economic attrition during the Cold War.

I have European friends six or eight years older than me, born in the late 1940s, named Frankie and Johnny because their parents were so inspired by the greatness of the Americans they met who came to liberate them from the Nazis. But Europeans no longer name their children after American GIs. The sad reality is that, in the first decade of the 21st century, if your job was marketing a product in Europe, one of your responsibilities was to comb any hint of America out of your promotional material. “California” used to sell in Europe. But in recent years, it’s been the kiss of death.

The “Brand of America” changes with the attitude of whichever administration is setting the tone. With each new president, other nations wonder if there will be unilateralism or multilateralism, respect and collaboration or threats and hypocrisy. Travelers have the opportunity to take home a firsthand understanding of what the rest of the world thinks when it sees America. And if they don’t like what they learn, they can come home and help repair that image problem.

Rick Steves

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. He is the author of Travel as a Political Act.

9 Comments for Reviving Brand America

Terry 09.17.09 | 1:49 PM ET

Great piece, Rick. This line could spark an article of its own:

“In Europe, the mark of a friend is not someone who constantly fawns over your obvious strengths, but someone who tells you when you are off-base and disappointing them.”

I’m speaking from experience that such forwardness can take some getting used to. But it makes the compliments, when they come, all the more meaningful.

Roger 09.17.09 | 3:28 PM ET

I appreciate Rick’s consistent voice of moderation, and experience on subjects like this.

tom swick 09.18.09 | 10:28 AM ET

The Greeks are right up there with the French - if not surpassing them - in anti-Americanism. And they can be rather clever in expressing it. A friend of mine who is married to a Greek was walking through Athens at the start of the Iraq war when she saw this sentence scrawled across a wall: “Damn Columbus and his curiosity.”

Lindsay 09.18.09 | 11:29 AM ET

Tom, with all due respect I must disagree. The Greeks love Americans, love America, and many Greeks own property in or have family in the U.S.. They love Greece and they celebrate their culture and their history in Greece and in the U.S. They know the difference between “America” and Americans. What they hate is the war.
I have to say though, that is a very clever quote.

Daniel Noll 09.18.09 | 1:52 PM ET

My wife and I lived in Prague for five years.  During that time, a cross-cultural coordinator asked us which films about America could be shown to Czech students to help them better understand our country and its culture.  He suggested Fahrenheit 911 or Fast Food Nation.

Although we didn’t believe those films were representative, we struggled to offer alternatives.

I believe the American re-branding effort has to go beyond good-hearted people traveling the world and engaging in freelance diplomacy.  I’m not knocking this…it’s what my wife and I have been doing for 2.5 years.

WWII is long over. And our 9/11 moment when the world sympathized with us is gone.  A grass-roots look at America, told by Americans (not by American news or TV shows) might be one avenue to re-orient the way the world views America.  The objective: a concept of America beyond its politics and policies—one that decouples “brand America” from whoever happens to be in the White House.

Here’s a newly-launched project attempting to tackle this enormous task:

AndreyM 09.21.09 | 3:30 AM ET

This talks about politics have never brought into any positive results. The only result is that different countries move away from each other. And as to me the only way to unite them all is to have the common goal! 09.21.09 | 11:19 AM ET

This was a great article.  In certain areas of the world Americans are still known as “the ugly American” or ignorant.  Some people in countries like France may not be friendly towards Americans.  You can’t judge a country by a handful of people or your experience.

It’s interesting how we focus on being ambassadors when we travel abroad but neglect ambassadorship at home.  America still has issues with race, sexuality, health care, women’s rights, and other issues.  What does America do?  We walk into countries like Iraq and tell them what they’re doing is wrong, especially the treatment of women.  American women have it a million times better than women in other areas of the world, but they’re still fighting for equal pay.  It’s kind of hypocritical of America to tell other countries what to do.

Until we accept ALL AMERICANS, how can we be accepted in foreign countries?  Just something to think about the next time you travel.

Carlo Alcos 09.23.09 | 6:47 PM ET

That is the hypocrisy that is America and I think is what most people dislike about it so much. The US is not problem-free, far from it, and I don’t even have to give examples. So when American foreign policy is such that it is telling other countries how to be, when it can’t get it straight at home, is a bit of a joke.

Darrin 09.26.09 | 10:58 PM ET

Great post.  I was in Paris last week, and American music seemed to rule the airwaves.  I found it difficult to find French music playing in any restaurant, store, or cab. Instead, I just kept hearing a curious mixing of Barry White, Kiss, and the Beach Boys (and then more Barry White!).  Funny you mention California: when the Eagle’s Hotel California came on in a Parisian cab, the cabbie beamed as he announced to my wife and I, “Classique!”

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