By Michael Meneer
The Ugly American. It’s an unpleasant term to hear, particularly for an American living abroad. It dates back to the late 1950s, to a novel and subsequent movie of the same name that chronicled the heavy-handed and culturally insensitive U.S. Foreign Service of the Cold War.
More broadly, the term has become representative of loud and imposing Americans with scant interest in the ways of other cultures.
After my move to Vancouver in 2007, I recall well feeling embarrassed by the foreign policy of George W. Bush, which was very much in keeping with The Ugly American: quick to put boots on the ground and with little regard for solid intelligence or patience for diplomacy. Barack Obama has not been perfect, but his respect for and willingness to lead with diplomacy has restored a sense of pride for many Americans living abroad.
With the election of Donald J. Trump, I fear we have empowered the archetypal ugly American.
Despite years of effort among America’s foreign partners, the Paris Agreement is likely doomed under Trump. His vehement commitment to expand border and immigration enforcement with Mexico will potentially have ripple effects here, emboldening already hyper security- and enforcement-focused U.S. border guards. And Trump’s commitment to scuttling the Trans-Pacific Partnership will likely mean a much harder row to hoe for Canadian businesses looking to conduct business across the border.
To be sure, there is some solace: Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote and Trump didn’t win a majority of the electorate. As well, he will surely face enormous challenges within a Republican Congress that is ideologically much farther to his right and anything but unified.
Trump’s election will also, hopefully, lead to a period of catharsis and renewal for the Democratic Party, especially given the tremendous success of Bernie Sanders. I did not support Sanders, but he so better articulated the anxieties and concerns about economic inequality that eventually propelled Trump to an Electoral College win.
David Mivasair, who was a coleader of B.C. for Bernie, says, “we are entering a very unpredictable time—total terra incognita—with sharper polarization within American society than before.” He adds: “Many people who until now have carried anger and resentment for years are feeling free to unleash it, with some very ugly results.”
Yet Mivasair sees hope for renewal: “We have already seen an enormous awakening into activism of people across America—including some of the thousands of Americans who live here in British Columbia—who until now have been complacent about personally getting involved. People who never were politically involved before are now feeling that they must step up to the plate to protect the liberties and fairness that we’ve come to expect in the United States.”
My Republican friend Jeff Peterson says the Republicans also need to do serious soul-searching. He’s a U.S. corporate lawyer who grew up in Minnesota and runs the Vancouver office of a U.S. law firm.
”The primaries exposed the deep divide in the GOP between its moderate, pro-business and, important for Canada, free-trade wing and its more reactionary, populist wing. The former was willing to try to find common ground with opponents and the latter was determined to get its way, particularly on social issues. Trump’s win may paper over that divide for a time, but that time will be short.”
Cross-border business is Peterson's bread and butter, so he’s also concerned about how Trump will engage with the world. ”Trump won because of his populist, insular message, which, I fear, he actually believes and, regardless, his base will demand he honour. If so, that won’t be good for Canada.”
Despite the election of Trump, I am reassured that the American Foreign Service is now populated by people like Lynne Platt, the U.S. consul general in Vancouver. Quite the opposite of those depicted in The Ugly American: she’s an exceedingly open person who listens and values varying perspectives. During her tenure in Vancouver, she has enthusiastically opened her consular residence to numerous cross-cultural gatherings, including several discussions for Canadians about the U.S. election process.
She has made concrete the sentiment inscribed on the outside of the Peace Arch: "Children of a common mother, dwelling together in Peace". I will remind myself of the wisdom of these words on Inauguration Day, January 20, as the official portrait of President Barack Obama comes off the wall at the U.S. Consulate in Vancouver and is replaced with Donald Trump’s.
After the change, it will be up to Lynne Platt and her Foreign Service colleagues to remind people around the world that we are not all ugly Americans, despite the resident in our White House. And it will be up to all Americans, especially those abroad, to remind President Trump of the historic wisdom and spirit of the lesser-known words etched inside the Peace Arch: "May these gates never be closed."
Michael Meneer was born in Akron, Ohio, and moved to Vancouver in 2007. He is a U.S. politics commentator and a regular part of the American panel on CBC’s Early Edition with Rick Cluff.