Ali Wyne is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a new leader with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States no longer confronted a major competitor on the international stage, and the values it promoted seemed irreversibly ascendant. Given the ensuing triumphalism that prevailed among many U.S. commentators — premature in retrospect, but understandable at the time — Americans who came of age during the 1990s might be forgiven for lacking interest in events beyond their borders. Nothing much mattered anymore, it seemed, except what was going on in the United States.
Growing up in a small New Jersey town, Suzy Hansen remembers that her “entire experience was domestic, interior, American,” lacking any “sense of America being [just] one country on a planet of many countries.” In 2007, she received a writing fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs to visit Turkey and conduct research on political trends in the Islamic world. Her award had been endowed in the 1920s by Charles Crane, the adventurous heir to a Chicago plumbing company fortune who lamented that “Americans and especially American policymakers were not well enough informed about the rest of the world.” Early on in “Notes on a Foreign Country,” Hansen relates a conversation she had with an Iraqi man in 2012. When she “asked him what Iraq was like in the 1980s and 1990s, when he was growing up,” he replied: “‘I am always amazed when Americans ask me this. How is it that you know nothing about us when you had so much to do with what became of our lives?’”
Abounding with such anecdotes, “Notes on a Foreign Country” is a compelling exhortation to introspection: Hansen, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, urges Americans to recognize the perspectives that shape — and sometimes distort — how they understand their country’s role in the world. In the concluding stanza of his 1786 poem “To a Louse,” the Scottish bard Robert Burns enjoined individuals to inhabit the minds of their peers: “Oh, would some Power give us the gift / To see ourselves as others see us!” This undertaking is particularly challenging for citizens of the world’s superpower, who tend to presume that its values are universal and the world order it promulgates is sacrosanct.
Hansen spends much of her book identifying and critiquing her own preconceptions. She notes, for example, that she initially approached Turkey “like some specimen I could place under a microscope,” appraising its development according to Western notions of modernization. Indeed, the further her narrative progresses — winding through Istanbul (where she now resides), Athens, Cairo and Tehran — the more one senses that her reflections are as much an exercise in discovering her biases as they are in enlightening her American readers. She concedes that she “had been invested in an idea of the East’s inferiority without even knowing it” and cites an “unassailable, perhaps unconscious faith” in America’s “Western way of living” that accompanied her during her travels. No matter how dispassionately Americans may believe they can — or do — assess their country’s actions, Hansen observes that “an objective American mind is first and foremost still an American mind.”
She vividly captures the disorientation we experience when our preconceived notions collide with uncomfortable discoveries, likening that moment to “a cavity filling: something drilled out, something shoved in, and afterward, a persistent, dull ache and a tooth that would never be the same.” We do not easily relinquish our assumptions. Indeed, the more we believe a proposition is self-evident, the more resistant we are when it is challenged: Overcoming that inertia, Hansen writes, is akin to “shedding layers of skin. It’s a slow process, you break down, you open up, but you also resist, much like how the body can begin to heal, only to fall back into its sicker state.”
It is rare and refreshing for an observer to exhibit this level of candor about her internal tensions. But occasionally Hansen’s perceptions create tensions of their own. While she premises her book on the judgment that America is in decline, she also characterizes it as an empire. Indeed, she sometimes seems to portray a country bordering on the omnipotent, wielding its wide influence in ways both evident and clandestine. It is hard to reconcile that depiction with the litany of strategic setbacks that the United States has experienced in the postwar era or with the accelerating growth of disorder in world affairs. An exaggerated appraisal of U.S. influence has proved doubly harmful: Beyond tempting the United States to embark on and persist with misguided interventions, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has led outsiders to implicate the United States in unfortunate outcomes for which it had little, if any, responsibility.
And while Hansen rightly cautions against blind acceptance of America’s foreign policy, which has often departed from its self-professed values, blanket suspicion is not warranted, either. Her narrative would be more balanced if she acknowledged some of the contributions of U.S. power. Programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the President’s Malaria Initiative, for example, have saved millions of lives. And the resurgence of the Asia-Pacific — of which China’s post-1978 growth is the most remarkable example — has been enabled, in no small part, by the order that the United States has sustained in that region.
Still, with the U.S.-led postwar order under growing duress, and with long-standing U.S. allies increasingly questioning America’s reputation as the exemplar of openness and pluralism, Hansen’s principal injunction to Americans to understand how others view them and their country’s policies is timely and urgent. While “Notes on a Foreign Country” makes for sobering reading at times, there may be a silver lining in Hansen’s chronicle of widespread disillusionment with the United States: It reflects a residual hope in the power of the American example. Americans, policymakers and citizens alike, should work to sustain their country not just as a military power and an economic engine, but also as an aspirational idea.
By Suzy Hansen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 276 pp. $26