American Power and Ignorance: a View from Abroad

by Benjamin Collinger


An American Abroad in a Post-American World

by Suzy Hansen

276 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

In Argentina and much of Latin America, the common way to refer to a U.S. citizen is not a direct translation of “American.” Argentines in Buenos Aires would call my classmates and I “Estadounidenses”: essentially, “United Statesians.” While this word is very precise and logical in Spanish – it avoids assigning the United States the entirety of the Americas – few English speakers use its ostensible translation. Learning this linguistic quirk early in my semester abroad framed how I understood the United States’ relationship to the world at large and Latin America, a relationship permeated by a language and history of empire; a history of which Americans are scarcely aware. This is what concerns Suzy Hansen in Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World. 

“Hansen’s deeply personal account of her years in Turkey relays a historical critique of American power, the relationship between our racial history and foreign policy, and American exceptionalism.”

Hansen, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, moved to Istanbul in 2007 after winning a writing fellowship. Much of the book chronicles Turkey’s history. She isolates Turkey from the Arab world as a confident, never colonized country that “always maintained an illusion and a narrow reality of democratic and economic participation” despite a history of military coups and violence. The United States and Turkey are similar in many aspects, especially in their respective approaches to national history. Hansen argues that the development of Turkish and American nationalism were both premised upon “denial and forgetting.” For Turkey, of its Ottoman past; for America, of its shameful racial history.

Yet, Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country is primarily concerned with the American body politic’s identity in relation to the world. She concedes that she, like the American public, was largely ignorant to the world beyond the United States prior to her time abroad. Her perspective was clouded by 9/11; Hansen “feared Islam in those days.” Even highly educated Americans still exhibit relatively little knowledge of the world. A Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic survey conducted in late 2016 of students aged 18 to 26 and educated at U.S. colleges and universities demonstrated this fact. For example, the survey discovered that only 30 percent of those college educated students knew that the legislative branch has the authority to declare war.

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Notes on a Foreign Country criticizes the ignorance of the American public. The author does so credibly through her concession that, she too, was raised with little understanding of her country in relation to others: “instead of ever considering that that exceptionalism was no different from any other country’s nationalistic propaganda, I had internalized this belief as the basis of my reality.” Hansen’s portrait of American empire is compelling because she problematizes the neutrality that Americans often ascribe to our values, or rather, what we believe our values to be.

“She emphasizes that the default of U.S. policy – historically and currently – is not a neutral desire to spread democracy, but rather, an empire that has often required continuous and violent expansion.”

Hansen’s critique is not surprising to students of U.S. foreign relations; at times, her writing seems pedantic and unfair to Americans who do not have the resources to travel abroad. It is also not clear why she believes that the world is “post-American”, given her diagnosis of current American global influence. Even if American hegemony is over (it is probably not), Hansen’s description of American power is largely premised on aspects of soft power that keep American influence pervasive regardless of decline in other respects. It is this latent cultural power that keeps the U.S. distant from other countries.

“Distance, distance, distance, was the American way, a frigid, loveless distance, a kind of power and violence that destroyed intimacy in all its other manifestations, that destroyed empathy in all of its imperial citizens, in us, in me,” Hansen explained. It is this distance that allows the U.S. to continue small wars across the globe without a nationwide reckoning. Hansen contends that false narratives about our country’s history and actions precludes us from the ability to express empathy toward foreigners. In relation to the horrors of the Iraq war suffered by Iraqis, for Americans, “Empathy was infrastructurally impossible,” Hansen writes. “There simply was no way for the American mind, perhaps the white American mind, to imagine these things – not the horror, and not the responsibility – and so we did not.”

Perhaps the American-led liberal order will ensure that empathy remains infrastructurally impossible. But as rising powers displace the United States and domestic political insurgents rattle key assumptions about our role in the world, we may also change. If James Baldwin is correct that “the loss of empire also implies a radical revision of the individual identity,” it is possible that the identity of the American body politic becomes more outward facing and introspective. Yet, Hansen makes a strong case that the opposite will come true.

Benjamin Collinger is a junior at Trinity University majoring in International Studies and History, and is the Executive Director of The Contemporary

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The photo above of Istanbul, Turkey is in the public domain.

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