The Ugly American was on display in Paris this past weekend, except when he was a no-show entirely. It seems hard to mess up a ceremonial occasion observing the 100th Anniversary of the end of World War I. Not much more was expected of world leaders other than to show up, appear appropriately and solemnly engaged, say some good words about the heroic soldiers who gave their all so long ago, and pledge to work together to spare civilization yet one more horrific war.
President Trump, however, could not resist continuing to play the role he fills so well, the iconoclast, the person who attacks settled beliefs, a man who cannot bring himself to visit a war cemetery during a light rain, a world leader who cannot find the grace to walk up the Champs Elysee shoulder-to-shoulder with other world leaders. For whatever reasons he skipped these important symbolic public displays of unity with peers from other nations, his absence thundered a message of isolation for America, disdain for the very idea of unity with European leaders in particular, contempt for diplomatic norms that are the necessary oils to keep the gears of international peace and understanding working well.
A few weeks ago, President Trump proudly declared himself a “nationalist” and deliberately pitted his use of that word against the term “globalist” which he decried as someone who is more interested in the whole world than in the welfare of the nation. This definition is plain wrong, echoing historic strains of fascism and anti-semitism. His use of these terms also was a red flag to citizens and leaders alarmed by our nation’s increasing hostility to international alliances and mutual cooperation on issues ranging from defense to climate change.
President Emanuel Macron of France had a stinging response in his speech on Saturday at the Arc de Triomphe: “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism,” he said. “In saying ‘Our interests first, whatever happens to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: Its moral values.”
“The Ugly American” is a concept created by the novelists Eugene Burdick and William Lederer in a 1958 novel (later a movie starring Marlon Brando) depicting the failures of American diplomacy in southeast Asia. The fundamental problem of the American approach to international relations and diplomacy was a failure to respect and appreciate the cultures, languages, customs and traditions of other nations and peoples — a problem at that time that led to the U.S. quagmire in Vietnam, but a problem that continues to this very day in President Trump’s approach to global affairs. The problem is not only a philosophical stance that treats other nations and alliances with disdain, but in fact, his contempt for immigrants and persons who are different by color, race, language, belief, nationality custom and a host of other characteristics is not only morally abhorrent but also a formula for increased national hostilities and diplomatic failures. Building a wall across the southern border to keep out certain kinds of people (brown, poor, refugees, homeless, nationless) is not so distant a move from withdrawing from the global climate accords or refusing to participate in the Peace Forum in Paris that took place immediately after the WWI memorial ceremonies. America First becomes America Alone, and rather than being a leader on the world stage, we have become increasingly isolated and marginalized.
I am reflecting on all of this after spending a week in Barcelona where I was part of a special gathering of university presidents of Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) discussing how we could expand opportunities for our students to study abroad. We were convened by CIEE (the Council on International Educational Exchange) and the University of Pennsylvania Center for Minority Serving Institutions for several days of learning about programmatic options and good exchanges on funding sources and the benefits for students and faculty to spend time abroad.
As I thought about our discussions in Barcelona and the isolation of President Trump in Paris, the contrast between these two competing approaches to the world became very clear to me. In so many ways, the population of the United States IS the world today, but our current president represents America as if we were all only one narrow band of that population, “the base” that is predominantly white, conservative, and, by his own admission and preference, less well educated than the urban populations that are hugely diverse by race, color, ethnicity, language, belief and so many other characteristics.
Colleges and universities have an important obligation as well as an opportunity to raise America’s profile to the world in a different way than what politicians represent. Our students abroad are curious and open to learning about other people and their ways of life, and our students also become important teachers and ambassadors about the diversity of American life in ways that people of other nations may not otherwise experience. However, the vast majority of American students who participate in study abroad are white women. The Penn MSI Center and CIEE, working in a partnership, aim to broaden that population through a creative program to engage institutions like Trinity that serve a majority of students of color in creative thinking about study abroad programming.
In prior generations, Trinity students did study abroad in various locations, but in more recent years as our students have had steep financial burdens, their ability to take a semester or year abroad has been limited. Additionally, our students are interested in a different experience than in the past — study abroad for health professions, business, STEM students and educators is increasingly important, and in a broader range of locations, not only Europe but also Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas. Through the CIEE/CMSI partnership and other initiatives, we are developing funding sources and program options that will make it possible for more Trinity students to experience some form of study abroad.
I will be providing much more on this initiative as well as the development of a new program called the Trinity Global Leadership Initiative. Our goal is to raise awareness among all Trinity students in all academic programs at all degree levels of the vital importance of global affairs on all dimensions of life and work today. Along with curricular initiatives, we will be developing resources to support an expanded study abroad program, using the lessons learned from students who participated in the Carnegie Study Abroad program in summer 2018.
We cannot sit back and let the “Ugly American” stereotype presented by our political leaders prevail. The fate of our nation and way of life depends heavily on our ability to work well with all other nations, to respect and support other peoples, to put the interests of the human family at the top of our list of priorities.
With presidents of MSIs in Barcelona, standing from left: Dr. James Pellow, president of CIEE; Dr. Cynthia Jackson Hammond, president of Central State University; Dr. Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University; Dr. Rudolph Crew, president of CUNY Medgar Evers College; Dr. Beverly Wade Hogan, president of Toogaloo College; Dr. Roslyn Artis, president of Benedict College; Dr. David Thomas, president of Morehouse College; Dr. Michael Amirides, president of the University of Illinois – Chicago; and seated from left: Dr. Anthony Munroe, president of Essex County College; Dr. Ann McElaney-Johnson, president of Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles; Dr. Eduardo Padron, president of Miami-Dade College; yours truly; and Dr. MaryBeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.