Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Unofficial Ambassador

"When Americans go abroad as businesspersons, scholars or trailing spouses, they typically become highly effective ambassadors of American values. "

David Kuenzi
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.)

23 comments:

Northerndar said...

I never have been an American ambassador. I have always felt Canadian for 45 years. America is where I grew up in. That is it. I am fine with being ONLY Canadian. Visiting outside Canada I was only Canadian with an American accent. Through the years it has deminished.
I enjoyed your article.

Inaka Nezumi said...

I think you are right that most people fall into the second category. Most of us intend and expect to participate in the society we live in, not to represent the one we used to live in. Those who pontificate about being "Ambassadors" for the old country, or "Guests" of the new one, tend to be pompous twits. As if just being a normal person is not special enough for them.

And yes, people are very, very angry now.

Inaka Nezumi said...

That said, yes I do occasionally get asked how various things are done in the US, and I do my best to answer (with the caveat that my experience is a couple of decades out of date). I also sometimes get asked why the US did a certain thing, and whether I think it should have done so. I might try to explain my understanding of what the thinking behind it was, and separately, what my personal thinking is. This is more of a commentator role, though, not an ambassadorial one. I'm not trying to sell any particular story on behalf of the US, which is what I see an ambassador's job as being. Though I do try to at least present a fair representation of all the considerations involved, as far as I understand them.

AtticusinCanada said...

Well, I think I did feel over time more defensive since I married into a foreign family who with the exception of my spouse made no bones about how much they hated Americans. Yes, in front of me so it was quite intimidating. I think my approach was simply to continually try to prove myself through positive actions. I've taken a lot of crap living here being American.

At any rate having relinquishment thrust upon me. I am no longer inclined to place loyalty to any line in the sand. Family and friends yes, countries, no! I frankly don't really care anymore about nationalism for my country of birth or my new country either. It's all a bunch of brainwashing hooey. In every nation on this earth there is no boundary that makes a dimes worth a difference when you talk about what people want for their children's future. Cultural differences enrich us all but, they would remain without the lines in the sand. Governments, pretty much corrupted with one set of rules for certain people and another set for others.

I place more loyalty in a good gardening or book club than I would now in any piece of paper saying I am welcome inside a certain sand line since such things are completely capricious. I felt other wise before all this FATCA crap started. It's been a rude awakening and btw, now that I think of it perhaps since I was one who did work for free i.e. try to put a good face on the American abroad . What a dope I was!

AtticusinCanada said...

It is SO hard to type on this ipad! I see that I screwed up my last sentence. Apologies. I trust you get the idea.

Anonymous said...

I never saw myself as a goodwill ambassador, but my default position now is to be wary, suspicious and critical of the US. I think it truly is arrogant, egotistical, a bully, and up to no good much of the time as a nation.

I'll be monitoring relations between my home country and the US - and supporting only those politicians who treat the US firmly and without deference or appeasement.

Bruce said...

These days, I don't trust much of anything coming from the WSJ. My wife and I moved to France nearly two years ago mainly because I had always dreamed of living overseas and we both agreed on France. I'm not sure which group I fall into since we have joined a couple of ex-pat groups. The principle reason was more for conversation as I didn't speak a word of French before coming here. But even before moving here I was conscious of how Americans are perceived outside the US, so I suppose in that regard I 've always tried not to be the "Ugly American."
I am now retired but my career was in public service, specifically law enforcement, at the city and federal levels so I've always felt isolated from other Americans. I do not accept or buy into the anti-government nonsense of the American right, hypocritical as it is, but I've never considered myself particularly "liberal" either, no matter that means.
The problem at home, as I see it, is that in the minds of a substantial number of Americans, there is no longer any separation between their church and their State. Their concept of America has been elevated to the level of religion and anyone not with them is in fact a heretic, literally and figuratively.
In any case, the US has become a de facto theocracy and I feel more comfortable here, where it never even occurs to anyone to ask me if I'd found a church yet. I also like it that I no longer have the worry of deranged gunmen (another subject).
In any case, I'm an American like I'm white, an accident of birth but also something impossible to hide. In the end, I just try to be myself and fit in here as best I can.

Inaka Nezumi said...

By the way, re-reading, I realize my first reply might have been taken as directed the wrong way. I actually had a particular person in mind, who was fond of finger-wagging lessons on the roles of "Ambassadors" and "Guests." Didn't really mean to apply the term "pompous twit" beyond that person, but in my grumpiness this morning it looks like I did. Hope nobody took it personally. (Especially not Victoria.)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Northerndar, Thank you! The fun of doing the blog is that as I write I re-examine things, formulate arguments, and often realize that I've changed my thinking. This is one I will go back and revisit in a couple of years.

@Nezumi-san, Oh I kinda like "pompous twits". :-) Hey, the Flophouse is your house. And yes I think "commentator" is a good term. I like it.

I did once write a sharp piece about "guests". Here it is and after a reread I'd say it still is pretty much what I think.

http://thefranco-americanflophouse.blogspot.fr/2013/07/expats-exbrats-and-guests.html

@Atticus, I think a lot of us feel like idiots right now. My family here wasn't really for or against. Wary, perhaps. Maybe a bit ambivalent. My father-in-law, for example, was pretty free with his opinion about how the US didn't help the French at Dien Bien Phu and he was a huge fan of De Gaulle. My mother-in-law was so happy that I was a Roman Catholic that I could have a Martian and she would have been OK with it. Just as long as she's Catholic... :-)

@Anonymous, I find myself being much more suspicious than I was. I'd say I was in the Give-the-home-country-the-benefit-of the-doubt. But as I watch folks like Reed try to slip into legislation his "punish those emigrants" ideas, I find myself becoming VERY paranoid.

@Bruce, I think you are dead right when you said, "Their concept of America has been elevated to the level of religion and anyone not with them is in fact a heretic, literally and figuratively."

Quenby Wilcox said...

I personally use 'global citizen' rather than 'Ambassador'. First, I do not think any govt. is developing effective solutions to domestic and international challenges -- they exacerbate probs rather than address them. So I would not 'align' myself with them, officially or unofficially. And, after 35 years and 8 intl. moves (and two children w/ 3 nationalities) I do not feel nationality has much importance. We are all people trying to muddle thru as best we can. :) -- Quenby

Michael Putman said...


Vindicated but more like grateful. I had been leaning towards relinquishing for a while but FATCA made me decide to just go do it and I feel peaceful and relieved now, more committed to my new country than I would have been.

I do wonder what the stats are on US emigrants naturalizing abroad. If you have any (more) material on this, even anecdotal, that'd be great. Very interesting.


This commentator has it nailed, too, btw:

"The problem at home, as I see it, is that in the minds of a substantial number of Americans, there is no longer any separation between their church and their State. Their concept of America has been elevated to the level of religion and anyone not with them is in fact a heretic, literally and figuratively.
In any case, the US has become a de facto theocracy and I feel more comfortable here, where it never even occurs to anyone to ask me if I'd found a church yet. I also like it that I no longer have the worry of deranged gunmen (another subject)."

A large segment of the White population feels like they are losing their wealth and status, and are indulging in political escapism into an out-and-out reactionism and a heretical and idolatrous fundamentalism that conflates God and Caesar/America. I have heard disturbing news that such folks permeate Army ranks as well. Not good.

Anonymous said...

What AtticusinCanada said in comment 4.
Me, too.

Through several decades in one of the more America-hating nations in Europe my policy was:

Never pander to local prejudice by bashing my home country in order to ingratiate myself with my new countrymen.

As Victoria wrote, Give-the-home-country-the-benefit-of the-doubt.

Work to disprove the caricature of the Ugly American--obese, uneducated, racist, mono-lingual neanderthal.

I loyally filed and paid my taxes to the USA, fully aware I was getting nothing in return.

Then, as reciprocation they give us….FATCA.

Angry, moi?
You bet.

limeeyank said...

Second group for me too.

Have lived in the UK for 19 years. Dual citizen for 15 years. I feel betrayed by my birth country and my adopted one. Don't even recognise America any more.
I am angry, ashamed, bewildered. And paranoid too. I watch the post, worried to receive a letter from the Bank. I don't go in the Bank either.

Feels like Nazi Germany.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Quenby, Well said.

@Michael, I'm hearing a lot of anecdotes from folks in different American communities and what I'm hearing is that most folksare least looking into getting that second citizenship. Let me see if I can find some numbers. I think France has good info.

@anonymous, I got to see this in another context. My French spouse in the US was nailed by a Greenpeace person for the Rainbow Warrior incident. Not fun for him. I don't remember how it ended by I do remember that my spouse absolutely refused to dump on his own country.

Anonymous said...

@Bruce who writes: "US has become a de facto theocracy and I feel more comfortable here, where it never even occurs to anyone to ask me if I'd found a church..."
and@ Michael, who wrote: "A large segment of the White population...are indulging in... a heretical and idolatrous fundamentalism that conflates God and Caesar/America..."

Wd you mind explaining what kind of "theocracy?"
Specifically, which is the state theocracy you perceive in the USA? It this state religion Judaism? Islam? Catholicism? Am truly baffled.

Though I am in the States often and for long stretches, no one has ever asked me about attending church or indeed mentioned religion at all.

There are many, however, who seem to worship the president/Caesar as a god.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@anonymous, You are right to call us on that. I can't answer for the others but here is what I think.

Americans (Left and Right) are more united then they know. They all have religion but it's a civic one - though I think organized religion has been captured to serve it. Yes, you heard me. I don't see religion in the US as influencing the state so much as it is the victim of people who wish to make it a servant of the state. Underneath the 4th of July celebrations, the apple pie, the Thanksgiving dinner is this underlying thing which includes (but is not limited to)a sense that the US, her institutions and her people have a destiny to remake the world in its own image. In the fulfillment of that destiny many many things are done - some beneficial, some very close to evil. But all justified by this grand project which says that the US is always a leader, always exceptional, always right, always well-intentioned - forever and all time the promised land, the city on a hill, the land of opportunity. Now if that isn't faith, sheer blind irrational superstitious faith, I don't know what is.

"The other feeling is what you were brought up to think. It's like an old shirt that no longer fits you. And now, when you look at it closely, you can see it was ugly to begin with."

Anonymous said...

Victoria,
Thank you for explaining this (and for all your thought-provoking posts). It seem that, for some, the old "manifest destiny" history lesson stuck .

My confusion was rather based on Bruce's use of "state theocracy." That is what led to my question of which religion is supposed to be the "state religion." State theocracies" normally would not permit Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity to co-exist.

I do not recognize the religion-obsessed Americans he paints. Those I meet are convinced that all religion is evil and that nothing "this country" (that would be the USA) does is right.

Often the only basis for comparison is a two-week vacation touring Europe

Michael Putman said...


If you hang out in a deep Blue state like CA or NY or MA, and in major metropolitan areas like LA or SF or NYC or Seattle, then you are mingling with the secular America that disagrees profoundly with the Evangelical GOPers I grew up with. Guys who thought Jesus, the Flag, and the Constitution narrowly interpreted were all Divine.

My own ex-home state has currently busied itself with obstructing access to contraception and abortion, and other such hot button issues that have nothing to do with salvaging the economy. There is no official state religion--but somehow religiously motivated morals keep getting infused into the local politics anyway.

In the European or Asian sense this is not a theocracy per se, but it's still alienating if you're a dissenter and consciously not among the Elect.

The Hobby Lobby ruling is a case in point. It seems that as the demographics shift to a more non-White country and a the polls show less religiosity in the traditional sense, the Evangelical cadres have become more reactionary and more strident. e.g. before 2010 or so Contraception was just not on the agenda in most places. Now it is.

I think that they are losing in the long run, but that has only made them more zealous in the meantime.

AtticusinCanada said...

Victoria, you have really nailed it down with this comment "It's like an old shirt that no longer fits you and now when you look closely at it you can see it was ugly to begin with"

And there is the seemingly glaring hop toad I never wanted to admit fully. I don't think Americans ever do admit that fully unless forced to as many of us have been.

I had an interesting conversation this week end with a man who came here to escape going to Vietnam. I'd heard they were here but, before FATCA I'd met only one in three decades. Now it seems they are reclaimed by the U.S. and I meet them everywhere this subject comes up.

What he told me was this "I faced up to this betrayal many years ago, you are just going through the painful process we went through long ago." The thing I noticed was that this treatment still pained him.

I have to wryly laugh at my first thoughts about FATCA being so innocent "I've never even had a jay walking ticket! I'm law abiding, surely this doesn't apply to someone like me?" Hilarious? Yes! As you pointed out here once before the FATCA rain falls on the just and unjust alike.

What it used to mean for expats to be an American abroad and what it came to mean after 2010 are two entirely different things. It's hard to sum up what it means right now because so much is a slap in the face, life changing adustment. Whatever we thought it was is seemingly a lie and the U.S. government is defining us as they damned well please. The relinquishments are the result.

allou said...

I was a dual national - now I am an ex-US person. I thank my lucky stars that I was not born in the US, my parents took us there as small children from Europe. Having lived in a generally US friendly Scandinavian nation for many years, I can say that the major difference is the change in the average persons perception of the US here in Scandinavia. Many years ago the idea of living in the US was intriguing for many young persons - they did not really comprehend why I would have moved away for it, why didn't my spouse want to move there instead? My explanation was always - unless you were very well off, or alternatively very poor from a 3rd world place, the US was a wonderful place to visit, but not to live.
The past 20 years or so I cannot recall having met anyone who wanted to move to the US - and have met more and more persons who have re-immigrated back from the US to the EU (folks who went to the US for work/research/marriage etc) These are generally persons with a useful education/trade/skill who have a European background. I have also heard of many persons from Eastern Europe who went to the US to work - they tell their contacts in Europe not to go to the US. The quality of life is less attractive than in many European nations, working conditions are worse, wages lower and quality of family life lower- essentially for average Europeans the US is no longer the land of opportunity that it was in the 19th and 20th centuries.
So - a nice place to visit, but not to emigrate to.

Anonymous said...

It is true that when in the USA i am in in either New York or California. In these red states, the America-is-a-theocracy meme is a mantra for the practitioners of either militant atheism or that nebulous cult called secular humanism. They tend to be self-congratulatory about their "tolerance,"--except when it comes to Catholics, Jews or southern Baptists.

Ironically, they practice their own politico-religious cult, with its own divinity, Barack Obama.

“Obama stands above the country, above the world. He is sort of God.”(Newsweek columnist Evan Thomas)

This delusional depiction of Barack Obama as the new, secular, American messiah began with his presidential campaign slogan: “We are the ones we‘ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
The apotheosis/coronation was confirmed when Obama-as-Zeus emerged between the pillars of the styrofoam Greek temple at the Dem. Party convention in 2008.
All that was missing was a toga and laurel wreath.

His first commandment: disobey me on FBAR and FATCA and your life will be hell

Anonymous said...

It is true that when in the USA i am in in either New York or California. In these red states, the America-is-a-theocracy meme is a mantra for the practitioners of either militant atheism or that nebulous cult called secular humanism. They tend to be self-congratulatory about their "tolerance,"--except when it comes to Catholics, Jews or southern Baptists.

Ironically, they practice their own politico-religious cult, with its own divinity, Barack Obama.

“Obama stands above the country, above the world. He is sort of God.”(Newsweek columnist Evan Thomas)

This delusional depiction of Barack Obama as the new, secular, American messiah began with his presidential campaign slogan: “We are the ones we‘ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
The apotheosis/coronation was confirmed when Obama-as-Zeus emerged between the pillars of the styrofoam Greek temple at the Dem. Party convention in 2008.
All that was missing was a toga and laurel wreath.

His first commandment: disobey me on FBAR and FATCA and your life will be hell

Anonymous said...

Pls.excuse double posting. No idea how it happened.

Correction in first line of post: for California and NYC
I meant "blue states," of course.