As Castañeda sees it, the United States is straining to balance different visions of what it could or should be. The nation is under siege by unresolved questions, from the Civil War to its debatable claim of exceptionalism and now the bluster of the Trump administration.
Castañeda argues that America is fast losing its encanto — its charm — as it increasingly looks like other trouble spots that have authoritarians at the helm, from Europe to Latin America and beyond.
Indeed, at times reading “America Through Foreign Eyes” feels like a humbling comeuppance for many of us — particularly journalists like myself — who perhaps have smugly judged Mexico and other societies as somehow more wayward than our own. “The very tenets of the American Dream are being questioned,” Castañeda warns.
He and I both are products of and participants in the dramatic U.S.-Mexico integration of the past three decades and of the more recent democratization in our homeland, Mexico. We share too often unrequited love and hope for both countries.
When I first met Castañeda in the late 1980s, I was a U.S. newspaper reporter, the Mexican-born son of farmworkers. And I was back home in Mexico hellbent on proving to my countrymen that upward mobility, hope for reinvention up north, was real.
Castañeda, a fortunate son of the Mexican elite, is a graduate of some of the finest schools in the world, Princeton and the University of Paris. He is no stranger to U.S. society and politics. A man of the left, he drew the ire of many former comrades by serving as the top diplomat for conservative president Vicente Fox, whose election 20 years ago ended seven decades of authoritarian one-party rule. Among Castañeda’s lifetime goals has been bringing to Mexico the kind of institutions he now fears are collapsing in the United States.
“This book is not written from a Mexican perspective,” Castañeda writes, “but rather from that of a sympathetic foreign critic who has seen the United States from both inside and outside.”
The U.S.-Mexico relationship, of course, is more than a bit complicated. The countries share a 2,000-mile border, tightly woven manufacturing chains, and growing family ties between millions of Mexican immigrants in the north and their families back home. The fact that Texas and much of the American Southwest were once claimed by Mexico only adds to the irritants in the relationship, Castañeda believes. “Having lost half its territory to the United States in the nineteenth century, having found itself caught up in the maelstrom of America’s current identity crisis,” he writes, “Mexico can never ignore what happens north of the border.”
But Mexico isn’t the main character in “America Through Foreign Eyes.” This is a report card on the United States, now in the grip of a narcissistic, xenophobic reality TV star fumbling on the world stage and stoking division and fear at home. A 2017 Pew Research Center opinion poll in 37 countries found that just 22 percent of respondents said they trusted Trump’s handling of international affairs, down from 64 percent who had had confidence in President Barack Obama.
Trump’s cynicism is emblematic of a deeper problem. He’s simply a symptom of America’s identity crisis — rooted in the nation’s birth. The cry for independence was for equality, Castañeda writes, though limited to certain segments of the population. Equality existed, he explains, “as long as slaves and Native Americans were excluded from the calculation, which, of course, they could not be. Equality, but not for everybody.”
Castañeda warns that the world is growing fatigued with America because of Trump and his enablers’ disregard for institutions and Trump’s obsession with walls — not unlike the barriers he ordered built around the White House to keep Americans out during recent protests.
America’s soft power — technology, food, cinema, music, clothing, a welcoming spirit — remains strong and seductive. Castañeda believes there are few, if any, competitors in that realm. “Chinese soft power, while rising, is light years away from the potency of American civilization,” he writes, “not yet ready for prime time.”
America’s best hope for going forward may be based in its grand legacy of reinvention, an inherent ability for renewal and replenishment. To claim a promising future as the country moves toward a minority-majority population — younger, more brown, black and female — America must confront its racial and wealth inequality and show up at voting booths. America must also stare down its aura of exceptionalism, which Castañeda compares to hypocrisy. Americans’ vision of their country’s exceptionalism — as a nation so superior to others, it can change the world — too often clashes with its culture of guns, mass incarceration, death penalty and war on drugs. Also in its history lie countless invasions and occupations of Latin American countries, including Mexico. Such conduct has no “place in the modern world, much less so in American civilization,” Castañeda writes.
Castañeda’s book is short on storytelling and anecdotes and long on wonky policy musings. And despite reminding us that Mexico must always be vigilant of what goes on up north, he doesn’t follow up on the implications of America’s erratic behavior for his own country. Not even a mention of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose bromance with Trump is akin to whiplash.
But obsessing over the lack of human narratives would be to miss the larger point of this important read and its impeccable timing. Yes, the world is watching America, especially its neighbors — all largely rooting as much for themselves as for the United States.
“American democracy will no doubt survive,” Castañeda writes. “But how it rides out its current storm will inevitably shape its future.”
America Through Foreign Eyes
By Jorge G. Castañeda
307 pp. $27.95