"When Americans go abroad as businesspersons, scholars or trailing spouses, they typically become highly effective ambassadors of American values. "
Wall Street Journal Op-Ed
This recent article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal uses a term that one finds over and over again wherever the American diaspora speaks in its own defense: "ambassador" or the more qualified "unofficial ambassador". I've used the term myself in my writing and whenever I've been put in a situation where I've felt the need to justify my presence outside (and my good intentions toward) the United States.
It's a wonderful term because it's just brimming over with goodwill. When a country wants to maintain peaceful relations and contact with another it sends an ambassador (otherwise it would send troops, right?) It's a terrible term because while it sounds so benevolent, it's precise meaning is elusive. What does an "unofficial ambassador" do exactly? If the position does indeed exist (unofficially), how could we tell that someone was doing a good, fair or poor job of it? And it is a dangerous term because behind it are implicit expectations about how Americans abroad ought to conduct themselves when they are living outside the United States.
If the United States has an empire (and I believe it does) it is one that the homeland insists is a better, softer, loftier empire than the ones that came before it. Its values are universal and worth spreading and Americans abroad are useful to the extent that they are helping all this along. That implies that the should be missionaries of a sort with a message to sell. Since they are "unofficial" (meaning they are not connected to the US government and do not earn their living doing this) this is tailor-made to appeal to patriotic, individualistic, anti-government homeland Americans. It is an argument in favor of (if not favorable treatment) then at least a certain consideration on the part of the United States toward its communities abroad.
Whatever the reality there are several reasons to think a little harder about that term, how it's being used and to what purpose.
Information Welcome, Evangelists Not So Much: As much as I am comfortable talking about being an "unofficial ambassador" with my U.S. compatriots, I cannot, for the life of me, imagine claiming that role in my interactions with people in my host country, though I can certainly think of times when the role has been thrust upon me; when I am asked point blank as the token American at the dinner table what I think of thus and such.
At best I am being asked for a personal opinion which will either play into or against whatever positive or negative stereotypes they have in their minds about Americans. At worst they are provocation into "defending the indefensible" - a policy, an act, the result of an election that the people around me have sharp opinions about (and frankly something that I might not like much either).
That's information "pull", not "push". And I've learned to be very measured in my answers to the extent that I will admit that there are many questions for which I have no answers. "What do the American people think of that?" Honestly? No idea. We are, I point out, at the same level of information and they can look at the poll numbers or read the New York Times just as well as I can.
But it is the act of giving a thoughtful measured response that may make the difference here because one of the negative stereotypes about Americans is that we are not a particularly thoughtful people. In any case, it's not the answers so much the way they are expressed. Done well (that is to say without jingoistic blind patriotism that just screams shill for empire) then, yes, people might leave the dinner table with a much better impression of Americans then they had before. That, I think, might be what a successful "unofficial American ambassador" looks like.
Sharing Values, Serving Interests In the "pull" scenario above if there are any values being transmitted between the apéritif and the dessert, believe me, it isn't on purpose. If the American is living in another developed Western democratic nation-state then values of good governance, separation of church and state, gender equality, individual liberty and so on are not values to be transmitted because they are already there. If the American civilian is living in a country or region that does not share those values, is it really his or her role to be an evangelist for them in America's name? Is the "project" of sharing values (or serving US interests) shared by Americans in the homeland and Americans abroad? In other words, is this an expectation coming from Americans in the US, or is it something that some Americans abroad have simply taken upon themselves for their own reasons. I think this is worth discussing because there are way too many assumptions and not nearly enough clarity here.
The Face of Americans Abroad: 7 million people with very different reasons for being abroad and of every color, creed, class. Some are indeed missionaries. Many are teachers or professors. There are retirees, economic and marriage migrants, true expatriates sent by their companies, and so much more. The Peace Corps, for example, is still around. There is also the military and former military.
There is an almost infinite number of combinations here that begin with who these people were before they left the US, why they went abroad, what they do and where they went (or were sent) and with whom.
Kuenzi qualifies his statement by referring to three categories: "businesspersons, scholars or trailing spouses" but these are only a small fraction of the Americans living abroad.
I think that the largest group of Americans abroad looks like this: they don't want any or minimal contact with the US government and other Americans while they are living abroad, they do not want to join any American organization be it Democrats Abroad, Republicans Overseas, AARO or ACA: they are keenly interested in being good denizens of their countries of residence, and these days more and more of them aspire to become citizens of those states. They make no demands on the United States while they are abroad. In many cases the very minimal protection of the US government is neither attractive nor relevant to them since they know the limits of the local consulate's assistance (a list of local lawyers who speak English) and they understand that the US government will not expend political capital on their behalf to get them out of trouble. And if it weren't for the fact that they have to have a passport to enter the US to see family, they would probably forgo that as well. What they want is to be left alone to go about their business and their lives.
Are these people good "unofficial ambassadors"? I have no idea and neither does anyone else.
We have been using this language for years now and I don't see it making any difference to the current debates. For those who really did take that role very seriously, they have learned that there is no reward for their efforts.
As a result these folks are deeply deeply angry
For those quieter more discreet souls who I think are the vast majority, a kind of implicit contact was revoked when they weren't looking and now, instead of being left alone, they are discovering that their own empire calls them criminals and plans to track them down to the ends of the earth.
These people, too, are deeply deeply angry.
And there is a probably a minority who is so paranoid about the US government, and so convinced that its intentions are always nefarious, that none of this is a surprise to them.
I think those folks aren't angry, I think they feel vindicated.
In either case I think the "unofficial ambassador" argument is falling on deaf ears. We are making a claim on the homeland for something it never asked us explicitly to do on its behalf. That's my honest take on it and I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts.
(And for those of you who are members of other diasporas, I'd be very interested in knowing if a similar situation exists between you and your home country.)