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.