The ugly America, at home and abroad
“The Ugly American,” a 1958 best seller, became a 1963 hit movie starring Marlon Brando. The book was a precursor to what would become the Vietnam War and the absolute failure of American policy, strategy and diplomacy. The ugly American was Homer Atkins, the unsung hero sent to help the mythical Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan.
Today, unfortunately, the positive portrait of this ugly American has metastasized into the ugly America, because, in many parts of the globe, that is how most people now view this country. Worse, the ugly America label also applies to how we view ourselves.
Many Americans do not seem to understand these realities. We still think of ourselves as the leader of the free world. But internationally the U.S. is harshly regarded, in some cases feared, and in others distrusted. The United Nations General Assembly vote to condemn Russia over its invasion of Ukraine reflected this imbalance. Many of the most populous and powerful countries, including China, Brazil, India and Mexico, either abstained or voted against the resolution.
Domestically, anger, violence, disrespect and incivility have replaced consensus, decorum, truth and fact. Consider that 75 to 85 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. America’s current and most recent former presidents and Congress have among the lowest favorability ratings in history. The nation may be more polarized than at any time since 1861.
The sad and sorry tale of how America descended into this dismal state has been well reported. But why this has happened and what, if anything, can be done to reverse the trajectory are open questions. The answer to why the world views America less favorably rests in a combination of arrogance, ignorance and a series presidents who lacked the requisite experience, judgment and in at least one case character to be commander in chief.
From the Vietnam debacle to the bungled Afghan evacuation last year, American presidents since George H.W. Bush (arguably the last president possessing the skills for success) have all failed to varying degrees.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003, the collapse of relations with China and Russia, the huge inequalities in wealth in the U.S. and the absence of plans or strategy on virtually every issue, including energy, Social Security, the environment, immigration, voting rights and national security are among the symptoms of an ugly America at risk of growing even uglier.
The Jan. 6th riot and the abysmal conduct of then-President Trump in refusing to call off the rioters, many of whom believed they were following his directions, are a stain on this nation. Whether the former president committed any crimes and will be indicted is uncertain. But this is far from America’s finest hour. And Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are sure to exploit this calamitous situation.
The most crucial question is not how to reduce inflation and gas prices, as important as they are. The most urgent question is how America can extricate itself from this most ugly of situations.
First, American leadership and competence must be demonstrated at home and abroad. America has only one president at a time and Joe Biden is it. He must assemble the leaders of Congress at Camp David and lock themselves inside until agreement is reached on three or four key issues that will turn the nation around. One of the most important is how to get Congress working and finding commonsense and bipartisan solutions.
Second, the U.S. must assert leadership abroad. Biden needs a summit with Putin and one with Xi. As Biden accepted the backlash for meeting with Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, he must do the same with Putin. The subject is how to reverse the adversarial and hostile relations that help no one. Ending tariffs with China and working out a new security relationship with Russia in Europe to include ending the Ukraine war are vital.
Third, the president must begin hosting members of Congress from both parties for lunches and dinners to identify areas that can lead to bipartisan support.
This is an ugly America, but it doesn’t need to be. Only the president can change that.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.