New York Times Magazine correspondent Suzy Hansen begins her book, Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, with her investigation into a lethal coal-mine fire in Soma, Turkey. She is shocked to learn of America’s role in the creation of an ineffectual union that failed to protect its members. Hansen had always assumed that American policies were essentially benign; we seek to “modernize” less developed countries and to democratize them—certainly not to cause harm.
Hansen argues that Americans are dangerously innocent about American interventions in other countries. When confronted with intractable hostilities abroad, we don’t realize these hostilities are frequently the result of U.S. policies that have caused great harm—a history that is rarely taught in American schools.
Raised in a conservative New Jersey town, Hansen, too, was “an innocent abroad” when she arrived in Turkey in 2007 on a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs. Despite a Harvard education, Hansen had no understanding of how America’s fear of communism led it to support strongman dictatorships, destroy local economies and even encourage and support fundamentalist Islamist militants. Paradoxically, the foreign country she ends up taking notes on is her own.
Painfully honest, this book can be a difficult read, but Hansen leaves us room to hope that, while our innocence has harmed the world, self-knowledge and empathy can help heal it.