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

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Americans Abroad as Unofficial Ambassadors

When Americans abroad talk to the homeland, we often use term 'Unofficial Ambassador' to convey the idea that while we are living in foreign lands we play an informal but important role representing the United States abroad.

We claim this role repeatedly in part because it does resonate with Americans in the US.  As Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels notes in the conclusion of her book about American in Europe, in 2008 both candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, nodded in the direction of Americans abroad saying how important we were as the "first contact other nationalities have with our country." (McCain).

'Unofficial ambassador' is 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. And it might be a dangerous term because there may be a disconnect between what we, the civilian Americans abroad, mean in the context of resolving our grievances, and what the US government and the American people hear.

I raise this question because there is a very good book out there called Unofficial Ambassadors:  American Military Families Overseas and the Cold War, 1946-1965 by Donna Alvah.  In that era the US military had a very clear vision of what was meant by an 'unofficial ambassador.'  This was a role assigned primarily to the wives and children of soldiers living abroad on US bases in countries like Germany or Japan.  Alvah herself spent part of her childhood on Okinawa.

How important was this to the US military?  Very.  "As burgeoning numbers of family members joined servicemen overseas in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, and as the Cold War developed, official prescriptive literature encouraging wives and children to act as 'unofficial ambassadors' in their everyday activities among local people in foreign countries." (Alvah: 39)  The role, in a sense, was a military asset because the goal was to have good relations with people in the host countries so that they would have a favorable opinion of Americans, American bases and American military and foreign policy objectives.

In 1960 there were 462,000 dependents of members of the armed forced living outside the United States. That is not just a few women and children, that's a veritable army of 'unofficial ambassadors'.

What were those 'unofficial ambassadors' (mostly wives) expected to do?  Alvah says: "the demonstration of courtesy and good will to local people, respect for the customs and obedience to the laws of host nations, the promotion of 'human understanding' and the countering of bad impressions made by other Americans." (Alvah: 74)

Yes, part of the job was to counter the behaviour of  'Ugly Americans' by showing that not all Americans were flashy, crude, and loud. In the Philippines American military wives were told to dress appropriately:  "not to wear clothes that were too casual or revealing..." to "cover their heads and shoulders in church... and to "wear modest dresses..." (Alvah: 77).  In France, they were told to mimic the style and fashion sense of the local French women.  Everywhere those American women went, they were encouraged to volunteer at local organizations or to start clubs and friendship associations.  And, above all, they were asked to be respectful and learn the local language, customs and values.

And doesn't this all sounds a bit like an exercise in integration?   Yes, but Alvah points out that there was a real contradiction here:  American women were being asked to partially integrate into the host country culture with the goal of "creating international alliances that ultimately served the economic and political interests of the United States." (Alvah: 102)

I personally don't see anything nefarious about this (feel free to disagree) but I would like to point out that these 'unofficial ambassadors' worked from the late 1940s to the end of the Cold War with an objective that I doubt very much is shared by civilian Americans abroad in the late 20th/early 21st century. If that is the meaning the US government places on that term - Americans abroad as the "softer" side of foreign policy - than we are not being entirely honest when we use it.

And I note that these informal 'lady ambassadors' in the Cold War era were only very rarely recognized or compensated for their work. Certainly the US military , the US government and perhaps even the American public appreciated their contribution, but that appreciation ended with purely symbolic gestures.

When we claim this title for ourselves, we are asking for a lot more than just a gesture (something that Obama and McCain were more than happy to give us because it cost them nothing);  we are claiming that we've earned through service the right to be heard, and to have some of our grievances addressed. That, I think, is a rather unrealistic expectation.

Because, from what I can see, those 'unofficial ambassadors' in times past never got anything more than a "Thank you for your service."

And that, mes amis, would be nice but it's not nearly enough.


Arun Kapil said...

This is most amusing. I went to a school in Turkey on a US Air Force station (7th-10th grades, late 60s-early 70s), where some fourth-fifths of the kids were from military families (the rest State Dept). If those kids and their parents had been 'unofficial ambassadors' - which I would be surprised if they were told about; I remember hearing nothing of it - Turkey would have broken diplomatic relations with the US...

bubblebustin said...

I prefer to be the "face" of Americans abroad, should I wish to refer to myself as American at all. With all it means to be an American expat these days, I would expect fewer are admitting they are - at least to their banks.

I have to admit that this American face ain't looking too happy these days.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Arun - Fascinating. How did you end up at a school in Turkey?

We have an old family friend who was born and spent part of his childhood as a military dependent in France. He has wonderful memories. But that was the 1950s. Different eras. In another book I read prior to this one, the author talks about the real problems those bases had in the Vietnam war era. An yet another talked about the very specific problems facing these families in Germany in the years between 1986 and 1988.

@bubblebustin - Now THAT is a term I like - the 'face' of Americans abroad. Much less baggage with that one and I think it's fairly neutral, descriptive and more honest.

And yes, we are not so happy these days. And I have to wonder that if there are any of us out there who really did feel a sense of responsibility for being 'unofficial ambassadors" has that changed significantly since we started having out recent problems with the US government?

I wish someone would do a decent poll on this. And I mean one that doesn't mince words or try to be politically correct.

bubblebustin said...

I can see why you are very greatly intrigued by the subject of migration. A very complex topic!

We should ask ourselves:

Are we an emigrant or an immigrant? Emigrants have left somewhere - immigrants have arrived. Immigrants wish to assimilate. Emigrants often feel they must compensate for their lack integration.

I don't believe one can ever feel like a full fledged member of the society where they live until they cease thinking of themselves as emigrants, or expats, yet the situation with American emigrants these days is that we must refocus on our "Americanism" in order to deal with the issues presented to us by the US government. I often say that FATCA and the realization that I'm a US taxpayer has awoken the American in me. I never would have dreamed five years ago that I'd be an activist for Americans abroad. It's simply not the natural course to take. I just wanted to be Canadian, really. How many emigrants of other countries who may have lived there for decades are suddenly forced to decide whether they should renounce their birth citizenship? Not too many. If this is American exceptionalism, it's one we can do without.

bubblebustin said...

That should be, "How many emigrants 'in' other countries who may have lived there for decades are suddenly forced to decide whether they should renounce their birth citizenship?"

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@bubblebusin I find migration to be fascinating. And I'm really enjoying my studies so far.

All immigrants and emigrants and vice versa. You have to leave a place (emigrant) to enter another place (immigrant). We like to focus most of our attention on the latter. Why? Is it because you and me come from immigrant societies? Are there other places in the world where the main issue is emigration? I think so. Let me think on a post about that.

I like your question and I would counter with this one: Why aren't we side-stepping the question about renouncing and instead trying to find way to evade the unwanted attention of the US? Why do we think that the only choices are 1. submitting to laws that we perceive to be unjust and 2. leaving? (And I think is a VERY politically incorrect question :-)

bubblebustin said...

I'm very happy for you to have found a subject you are enthusiastic about to the point that you would like to be a scholar in. We will all benefit from your extensive knowledge, Victoria.

I agree, I many of us have been framing this all wrong (at least that's what I'm inferring from your last questions. This isn't really about taxes is it? This is about the freedom for Americans to migrate to places outside the geographical confines of the United States, isn't it?

bubblebustin said...

I have to get better with my proof reading. Close bracket after "questions".

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@bubblebustin, For me that is THE question: Are Americans free to leave their country without penalties to live, work, raise families, and retire where they please (and where another country is happy to have them) in this glorious globalized world of ours?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a more apt expression is the title of her book "The Unknown Ambassadors", by the late Phyllis Michaux, founder of AAWE and AARO in Paris. An extremely fine example of an expat and an American if there ever was one. Cj

Anonymous said...

PS She looks at the issue from the civilian side, including her own experience from WWII on. Cj