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18 Nov, 2016

Is Travel & Tourism Ready for the Return of The Ugly American?

Bangkok – In 1963, Hollywood released what has turned out to be a very futuristic, fortuitous film called “The Ugly American.” Based on a 1958 book of the same name, it starred the legendary Marlon Brando as the U.S. ambassador to a fictitious Southeast Asian country named “Sarkan” where a civil war is looming. According to one review of the movie, which was shot in Thailand against the backdrop of the cold-war conflict, the ambassador sees only a threat from Communism.


Says the review, “(The Ambassador) can’t accept that anti-American sentiment might be a longing for self-determination and nationalism. So, he breaks from his friend Deong, a local opposition leader, ignores a foreman’s advice about slowing the building of a road, and tries to muscle ahead. What price must the country and his friends pay for him to get some sense?”

For many years thereafter, “The Ugly American” phrase came to describe the loud, buffoonish behaviour of the early generation of American tourists in Europe. Then it became an outright pejorative.

Today, with the election of Donald Trump, “The Ugly American” is set to make a comeback in its original geopolitical context. As with the shock-horror Brexit vote result, the wrong guy won. The United States went from “change you can believe in” to “change you cannot believe”.

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But every cloud has a silver lining. What may seem like a crisis is in fact a great opportunity to make America practise what it has long preached: Freedom, democracy, transparency and accountability. The rest of the world has got every right to hold the United States accountable, and must exercise that right vigorously.

If the fundamental premise of the rule of law is that no-one is above the law, the time to underscore that is nigh.

Mr. Trump was voted in by fewer than 50 million people, just under half of his own country’s voters and a mere fraction of the global population. His right to swing his arms around stops where the rest of the world’s nose begins. His well-publicised personal and professional flaws undercut the U.S.’s claim to the moral high ground. The U.S. media was so busy probing his alleged tax evasions, gropings and other alleged wrongdoings, it failed to take a closer look at what was going on behind the scenes. Now, the real Trump agenda is seeping out into the public domain, along with the people driving them.

The most prominent enigma is a lack of clear understanding why really did Mr. Trump seek the Presidency. He is not a career politician. He is independently rich with a private Boeing 757 and enough assets to comfortably live out the rest of his life. Nothing in his background suggests that he cares about the American worker. Why did he really want to become president?

We will soon find out. In the meanwhile, another serious question has arisen: What does the election outcome portend for the future of leadership in general? Management gurus and Schools of Public Administration have long preached the value of ethical, principled leadership. Blame it on the law of unintended consequences, but the Trump triumph has trashed every rule in the book. You CAN lie, cheat and deceive your way to the top, no ifs and buts about it.

Along with the leadership gurus, all the pollsters, political pundits and the Press also got it wrong, as did the legions of rich and famous. They have been wrong about much more; they just won’t own up to it. Today’s global state of near-anarchy can be traced back to a litany of wrong decisions by supposedly well-educated, well-informed people who are frequently in the media or at conference podiums boasting about their achievements. They are not known for admitting mistakes, leave aside being held accountable for them. Of course, apologising is a complete no-no.

Will those who were proved wrong be humble enough to recognise those who were proved right?

For many years, I covered the World Social Forum, an annual caucus of global civil society movements which campaigned under the tagline, “Another World Is Possible.” They represented the farmers, trade unions, working class people and those at the grassroots of society. They opposed wars, privatisation, corporate bailouts, the military-industrial complex, corruption, religious fundamentalism, and much more, because they were at the receiving end of the consequences.

Their warnings about the looming dangers seldom got any oxygen in the mainstream media. No ministers officiated at their low-budget events. They struggled to raise finances. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the World Economic Forum, the annual gathering of the global glitterati, ignored everything they said.

Apparently, leaders listen to their customers but not their constituents. The poor are considered stupid. The “big guys” are always prattling on about their successes and achievements. Today, their over-indulgent navel-gazing has led to the birth of the Ugly American.

The people of Asia have great cause for concern. Many aspects of Trump’s proposed agenda, such as revisiting the Iran and climate change agreements, tearing up the TPP, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, etc., will all have an impact.

By far the most ominous danger is a Clash of Civilisations. Numerous rights groups are already protesting the proposed nomination of Stephen Bannon, Walid Phares, Frank Gaffney and Michael Flynn to key positions in a future Trump administration. Readers can do their own independent research about these people. I am prepared to argue that should they enter the decision-making apparatus at the highest levels of the world’s most powerful country, America’s War on Islam will move into high gear. On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump made several inflammatory remarks about Islam and Muslims. These nominations send a very clear signal that he is ready to follow through on his comments. That will legitimise many of the human rights violations that the U.S. has in the past condemned in other countries.

The Ugly American will gain more traction.

Hence, my early warning to the travel & tourism industry: Start putting these upcoming challenges on the agenda and building realistic scenarios, including worst-case ones, about what a Trump presidency means for the future of travel. In doing so, remember that the Law of Physics, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” applies equally to geopolitics. Mahatma Gandhi had an even clearer perspective: An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.

For the rest of the world, reducing dependence on the U.S. should be a high priority. Indeed, it is the best possible time to expedite the ASEAN integration process and make both the region and the entire Asia Pacific region more self-reliant. Excessive dependency on the United States for economic, defence and other needs is now a security threat. For many years, that security-threat argument was used to convince countries to cut their dependence on imported oil; today, it also applies to the Ugly American about to enter the White House.