The Sunday Times: The Ugly American inside Obama is wagging his finger at the world

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Barack Obama began his recent four-nation tour of Asia by having dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Japan’s renowned sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro.

The restaurant has three Michelin stars but only 10 seats and it can take years to get a reservation. The set meal consists of 20 exquisite sushi pieces, each personally cut by 88-year-old chef Jiro Ono. According to a witness, Obama decided he was finished after the 10th and put down his chopsticks.

There are three possible reasons why Obama stopped eating halfway through the meal. 1) The 44th president is severely allergic to raw fish. 2) Obama was frightened of pulling a George HW Bush and throwing up in Abe’s lap. 3) He was, well, kind of full, you know?

I have a strong suspicion that the answer is No 3. Obama has a political tin ear whenever he has to hobnob with foreigners — such as the time he bowed to the Japanese emperor in 2009 only to ruin the gesture by simultaneously shaking hands. Whether it was ignorance or arrogance or a combination of the two, the gaffe pandered directly to the stereotype of the “Ugly American”.

Now, a disdain for cultural niceties cannot be blamed for all the disappointments of the latest tour. China, the biggest player in the region , wasn’t part of the trip. Nor should Obama take responsibility for failing to secure the trade deals he wanted with Japan and Malaysia. Both countries are in the grip of protectionist interests. But what is Obama’s fault is his failure to understand his own contribution to America’s increasing unpopularity.

The term Ugly American is often used to describe a certain kind of bumptious tourist. But that is not its real meaning. The term was coined in 1958 by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick in a political novel called The Ugly American, an attack on American exceptionalism as practised by holier-than-thou foreign service officials in southeast Asia.

Ironically, the actual Ugly American in the book, Homer Atkins, is a heroic figure who understands the people he is helping, supplying villages with clean water pumps. But what readers remembered were the “rich and bloated snobs” whose hectoring of the locals turned America into a hate figure.

One of the men most responsible for bringing the Ugly American into existence was President Woodrow Wilson, winner of the 1919 Nobel peace prize. Wilson took office in 1913, determined to demonstrate the benefits of American virtue to the world.

At the conclusion of the First World War, Wilson took his plans for a new world order to Paris where he joined France, Britain and Italy in determining the future of Europe. The earliest shades of the Ugly American began showing when Wilson ostentatiously refused to tour the French battlefields. His reason, that he needed to remain impartial towards the Germans, was both insulting to the dead and insensitive to the living. Some began to suspect that Wilson suffered from a messiah complex, brought on by the throngs of adoring fans who greeted his European tour.

Lloyd George couldn’t abide Wilson’s “little sermonettes” and thought him a prig and a hypocrite.

Consciously or not, Obama began channelling Wilson almost as soon as he entered the Oval Office. First came the announcement of a new global order where everyone was invited to be America’s partner. This was greeted with frenzied adulation and the bestowing of the Nobel peace prize. But then the Ugly American reared his head and the finger-wagging began — usually at countries that were either indisposed to listen or bemused by the effrontery.

One of the earliest lectures was in Egypt in 2009 where Obama declared that “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone”, before telling his Muslim listeners exactly what they should do.

Two years later he scolded European countries for not being quick enough in resolving the debt crisis. This prompted Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, to respond: “It’s always easier to give other people advice.” In 2012 Obama warned Britain that leaving the European Union would be a mistake.

The lecturing has often been accompanied by the same self-absorbed behaviour that was on display in Japan recently. During Obama’s last state visit to Britain in 2011, for example, he fluffed his toast to the Queen and then proceeded to talk over the national anthem, as though the musicians were playing background music.

This was only marginally less embarrassing than Obama’s failure to remember George Osborne’s name at the G8 summit last year, when he kept referring to the chancellor of the exchequer as Jeffrey. Obama’s lame apology, “I’m sorry, man, I must have confused you with my favourite R&B singer”, was highly revealing: he felt no shame because his abundant rectitude absolves him from mistakes.

The Ugly American trope matters because there is more at stake than the decline of diplomatic etiquette. This type of person appears to believe that normal moral considerations don’t apply at home or abroad. “Sometimes people call me an idealist,” Wilson once said in a speech. “Well, that is the way I know I am an American.” But what kind?

Despite his support for progressive reforms, Wilson was also behind the 1917 Espionage Act and its follow-on, the Sedition Act, which were assaults on American liberty.

Obama has followed a similar path of coupling beautiful rhetoric with grubby authoritarianism. Since becoming president he has invoked the Espionage Act six times against suspected whistleblowers.

Even before Edward Snowden’s theft of National Security Agency files, the White House had become obsessed with secrecy and surveillance. In April an Associated Press report declared: “The government’s efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office.”

Whether Obama was always part of the Ugly American crowd or joined it on becoming president, the result is the same. The speeches have grown stale while America’s allies wait for the return of Homer Atkins.

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