* Note: Sorry if anyone read an earlier draft of this post; after posting, I started thinking again and wanted to take it in a different direction.
Contextualizing The Ugly American is incredibly important to unpacking the fictional elements from the thinly veiled reality of its contents. The United States in 1958 was well into the Cold War, engaged in the Space Race, and at the low point of a recession. The Cold War and Space Race especially encouraged the United States to prove its dominance internationally; its incredibly easy to see how the themes of interventionism and rhetoric tied to reality for the reader at that time.
So why, in a world so incredibly different from that of 1958, and as students of International Relations, did we relate so much to the story in this novel? For me, the immediate relation was through my mom, who was a teenager in the 1960s, vehemently protested the Vietnam War, and has always taken an active stance of criticism towards American interventionism. Funnily enough, my dad and her father both served in the military; foreign service sparks some very interesting conversations with my family. For me, this meant growing up listening to the folk tunes of the 60s and rock of the 70s, which call for action much in the way that The Ugly American does, although in a different way. The thing is, though, I don’t know if that much has changed since the 1950s.
Because this is an academic blog, I wanted to examine some of the ways that the Cold War era that The Ugly American came out of impacted how we now approach International Relations. I want to look closely at how academia may have changed the way we learn about and engage with other cultures, and also look at how, if at all, US foreign policy has changed as a result.
Perhaps most interesting to me is the emphasis on area studies that came out of the Cold War period. While reading an article by Barbara Weinstein for a history course, I was struck by how rapidly the paradigms of an academic field can change, forcing academics to approach their subjects from an entirely different perspective. In short, Weinstein was trained in a neo-Marxist school of history; looking at class and other social dynamics was the way she learned to frame historical arguments. However, following the ‘linguistic turn’, a paradigm shift in the field of history in the 1980s, Weinstein had to reorient her argument, looking instead to questions of intersectionality and an emphasis on cultural history. Now, historians look for gender, queer identities, and other previously disregarded or marginalized factors or groups that can help to illuminate new ways of understanding people, places, and historical moments. This paradigm shift has not quite been reflected in foreign relations in the United States, nor in its rhetoric.
The Ugly American spends a significant amount of time unpacking the rhetoric these fictional characters employ when discussing communism. I found this eerily reminiscent to the way that the United States framed rhetoric relating to Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. One especially compelling historiography that I found relevant is called “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” by Lila Abu-Lughod. Her book questions the rhetoric used by the Bush presidency to mobilize Americans not only to war, but also on human rights campaigns to ‘save’ Muslim women from their ‘oppressors’. Rather than condemn and ‘other’-ize (if I can use that term) a political framework like communism, instead this rhetoric ‘other’-ed Muslim individuals in the United States and abroad. These specters of otherness, formed into ideological targets, show that the United States still has a long way to go before our foreign policy has effectively ‘changed’.
However, I feel that although the United States government remains somewhat stuck in rhetorical quagmire, academia may finally be emphasizing learning and appreciating a culture before attempting to work or live in that culture. While the turn described by Weinstein in the field of history doesn’t exactly relate to The Ugly American, it does promote studying and understanding culture, nebulous and often problematic as that word can be. In the 1990s, area studies emerged, with a focus on learning the languages, histories, and arts of cultures different than one’s own. Even in our seminar discussion, each of us pulls on our “region of focus” or personal experience living and studying internationally- Latin America, Iran, China, Canada, Hong Kong, and Singapore, to name the few I remember. We are now focused on integration and appreciation such that Brown requires certain language proficiencies to even apply to study abroad in certain countries. We have come a long way from what the book portrays in “Employment Opportunities” as a reliance on translation and emphasis on teaching others to learn English (81).
However, this academic emphasis can only go so far when it comes to American foreign policy. The first program that came to mind is the Critical Language Scholarship Program, or CLS, run through the US State Department. This program offers students the opportunity to study ‘critical’ languages as determined by the State Department; if taken with a grain of salt, it is easy to see that the United States government is now attempting to support language study for countries of particular economic or political interest, effectively training students for intervention or interaction with potential allies (or, to play devil’s advocate, future ‘enemies’). These include the obvious China, Japan, and Russia, while also including the slightly less apparent Azerbaijani (potentially critical in the Eurasian sphere due to oil reserves) and Indonesian (currently on the State Department travel warning list for terrorism). The emphasis on traveling to learn language shows a move in the right direction from what is explored in The Ugly American; however, these direct political and economic interests still seem dubious on the part of the United States government.
The other program that came to mind is the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, recognized worldwide as a leading grant for research and teaching abroad. However, I find it incredibly telling that Fulbright still refuses to fund grants for research in Cuba, despite the amount of interest in Cuba by American students and the reinstatement of diplomatic relations between our countries. In March of last year, I visited Cuba on a cultural visa (just after diplomatic relations were reinstated) and was shocked at how different the country was from the propaganda I had heard and even learned in Latin American politics and history courses at Brown. The fact that such a prominent research and cultural exchange will not fund travel to Cuba shocks me; however, again, Fulbright is granted through the State Department and must comply with State Department ideals.
While we may have moved on academically from the close-minded and perhaps short-sighted training that many of the foreign service professionals in The Ugly American were constrained by, the United States has not effectively moved on in its rhetoric or funding. As MacWhite said, “The little things we do must be moral acts and they must be done in the real interest of the peoples whose friendship we need- not just in the interest of propoganda… Grand patterns are no more than the sum of their tiniest parts, and it is on this basic level that we are losing the struggle” (267, 269).