I am an Australian exchange student who has been in the United States for nearly three months. As such, I have absolutely no hesitation in deeming myself qualified to make the sort of grand, sweeping generalizations that can characterize a nation of hundreds of millions in a few short sentences. Georgetown students, like their fellow Americans, are an enthusiastic people. I am mindful that the ever-watchful eyes of the U.S. State Department might at any time be fixed upon my visa status, so I will begin by sharing some positive cultural first impressions. These anecdotal observations relate to an important question that considers the challenge of deciding what should constitute the role of the United States on the world stage.
In a speech to the legislature of British Columbia on the eve of the 2010 Olympic games in Vancouver, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper spawned headlines by asking the world to “forgive” Canadians for their upcoming, uncharacteristic display of patriotism during the event. A somewhat amused Tom Brokaw made particular note of that apology in an explanatory piece about the U.S.-Canadian diplomatic and trade relationship.
His amusement most likely stemmed from the fact that American patriotism is generally unapologetic. Indeed, on the streets and in conversations with friends, acquaintances and various customer service workers, what has struck me about Americans is the outward energy that so many people exhibit. I cannot recall, for example, walking down the street back home behind somebody singing out loud. Here on campus and in the greater D.C. neighborhood, however, that is an enjoyably common experience.
Americans, then, seem to fit the stereotype of a loud and confident people. But how do such exhibitions of cultural behavior fit with what might currently be labeled a low point in national confidence in the political sphere? The economy, health care and national security are often described by partisans and media commentators as in a state of crisis.
In a similar, though less serious manner, Larry David’s critically acclaimed HBO sitcom has been, for the past decade, advising people to curb their enthusiasm. Indeed, there is something of a tradition of Americans wishing that their compatriots would constrain their exuberance. The 1958 novel “The Ugly American” introduced a phrase that has endured and is used frequently to describe what some consider the worst excesses of American foreign policy. The indictment of ugly Americans promotes isolationism over interventionism. The tension between those two tendencies has arguably shaped the foreign policy decisions of every modern president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Ugly Americans, however, will not be able to advance the best interests of their nation in the coming decades. That task will require the energy of enthusiastic Americans. Even though the United States cannot sing its way out of an historic national deficit, it can – to borrow from Harper – be uncharacteristic in the way it solves that and other problems. This would mean applying the relentless sense of optimism with which many ordinary Americans live their daily lives to problems of international relations.
When I first arrived in the District this year, my cab driver struck up a friendly conversation. In a heavy Jamaican accent, he asked if I was Australian. I answered affirmatively, and he then excitedly told me all about the café that his sister owned in Canberra, his trip last year to my hometown of Sydney and how long it would take if I were to ever actually bother visiting the Australian west coast from my home in New South Wales. When I asked where the driver was from, his response was not Jamaica, but Virginia. I saw him as a foreign driver while he clearly thought of himself as fully American. In our conversation we each, momentarily, had differing definitions of what it meant to be American and what it meant to be international.
As a nation, the United States cannot afford to make the same mistake that I made in that cab. It cannot attempt to harshly separate what is American from what is global. Indeed, enthusiastic Americans – who are such a vibrant part of domestic life in the country – need to assert their primacy over ugly Americans on the international level. Do not curb your enthusiasm. Instead, renewed efforts should be made to ensure that the domestic strengths, such as optimism, are constantly expressed to people in the rest of the world.
Andrew Swanson is a student at the University of Sydney and is studying at Georgetown for the semester. The Land Up Over appears every other Friday.
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