Respect and Trust: Lessons Learned Over Obama and Bourdain’s Bún Chả


In May of 2016, Barack Obama took time out from an official visit to Southeast Asia to sit down with the late Anthony Bourdain in a tiny street café in Hanoi, to have a bowl of Bún chả, a bottle of beer, and a chat.  Obama was the president of the United States; Bourdain was the host of a renowned travelogue television show focused on food and culture, and a former chef.  Two middle-aged blokes sitting on plastic stools in a restaurant on the other side of the world, sharing a meal while musing about the simple pleasures of different foods, the benefits of making peace with former enemies (they were in Vietnam, after all), and of the need to connect with strangers in strange lands.  And, weighing in on such weighty issues as whether it is ever ok to put ketchup on a hotdog (apparently not).  Their brief chat spoke volumes about America’s place in the world.

Openness and respect

During the episode, Bourdain had marvelled about the warmth and openness of the Vietnamese people toward the US and to individual Americans.  That’s what happens, Obama agreed, when Americans travel the world and see that people are pretty much the same the world over, with similar hopes and dreams.  There’s an understanding and an acceptance. In Hanoi, there were constant reminders of the long and catastrophic war between the two nations, but there also appeared to be a mutual respect.  Obama noted that former prisoners like John McCain often traveled back to Vietnam and had bonded with former adversaries.    Unfortunately, Bourdain lamented, the US seemed to be turning inward.  At the time, candidate-Trump was campaigning on building a wall to keep foreigners out, and on taking a much more confrontational approach to other nations – whether allies or enemies. 

That sort of sums up one of the key differences between President Obama and President Trump:  one could enjoy sitting among common folk eating unfamiliar food, and believed that personal connections at all levels contribute to a greater global understanding; the other doesn’t like foreigners.

What a difference 3 years makes

The Hanoi episode of Parts Unknown (Bourdain’s travelogue) first aired in September 2016.  Only three years later, it looks as if it’s from another era.  Because in 2016, the US president was respected and trusted by a significant majority of people in most countries.  A year later, that respect and that trust had collapsed. 

At the end of the Obama presidency, Pew Research reported that 74% of global survey participants expressed confidence in the US president to “do the right thing regarding world affairs.”  That figure plummeted to 23% during Trump’s first year. The annual Pew survey has just been updated, and Trump does not fare much better.  Although global confidence in Trump’s leadership has seen a bit of an uptick over the past couple of years, it remains at less than half the level of his predecessor.  And the new survey was conducted before news of the president’s shakedown of Ukraine became public – leadership behaviour that has now resulted in the president’s impeachment. Pew’s observations from the previous year’s survey remain:

“America’s global image plummeted following the election of President Donald Trump, amid widespread opposition to his administration’s policies and a widely shared lack of confidence in his leadership.”

I put it down to Trump not being able to use chopsticks.

Can Trump use chopsticks?

In Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain explored different cultures largely through sharing local food traditions with natives and other visitors.  For him, food offered a window into other ways of life.   Unfortunately, Trump hasn’t looked through many of those windows. 

Actually, I have no idea whether Trump can use chopsticks.  I seriously doubt it, though – this is a man whose diet is heavy with fast food hamburgers, bacon and eggs, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, all washed down with Diet Coke.  He orders his steaks extremely well-done, and eats them with ketchup.  He does not try new things.    Bourdain himself thought that watching Trump navigate chopsticks would be “pretty f***ing hilarious.”  

The point is, Trump is not a worldly man.  Neither is he a curious man.  Before he became president, his global travel experiences most likely consisted of business trips to and from 5-star hotels, mixing with bankers, lawyers and other suits.  As president, he would be even more cocooned.  He would be totally mortified by the idea of sitting in a Vietnamese café, surrounded by locals, eating a bowl of noodles and chunks of pork floating in a broth of fish sauce and vinegar – with chopsticks.   

Without an up-close exposure to other cultures, Trump’s world view is based on dangerous and ignorant assumptions and stereotypes.   Iran is full of terrorists.  Mexico is filled with rapists and murderers.  Ukraine is irreversibly corrupt. Africa is a collection of shithole countries. Canadians are all hopelessly liberal. The only parts of Britain worth visiting are those with Trump-owned golf courses. California would be better if it slid off into the Pacific.  And any place with a sizable Muslim population is to be avoided at all costs. 

Foreign policy based on assumptions and stereotypes is bound to lead to bad decisions.  That’s why confidence in Trump is so low. 

“Is it going to be ok?”

As president, Barack Obama made mistakes.  But he did try to connect with foes and adversaries, in order to build relationships based on understanding, rather than confrontation.  As he told Bourdain, “You don’t make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies.”  And these efforts were respected.  On the contrary, most of Trump’s dealings have been calculated to provoke, belittle, and insult – to focus on differences rather than to establish common ground.  It’s not working.

At the end of the segment Bourdain mentioned his young daughter, and asked Obama about the prospects for her future – whether the world would be a better place for her. He seemed very concerned. Obama reassured Bourdain, saying, “Progress is not a straight line.  But, I think things are going to work out.”

I wonder what he would have told Bourdain today.



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