America is under stress these days from the school house to the White House and beyond. These two books, among the many currently looking at our role in the world, were written a year apart and take different perspectives, but both have a lot to say about the place of the United States in today’s larger world.

America through Foreign Eyes by Jorge Castañeda

Jorge Castañeda is a professor of political science and Latin American studies at New York University and a prolific writer of scholarly books and papers. He is a former Foreign Minister of México who has lived and worked in the United States on and off for decades. This is his latest book, published just before the 2020 U.S. election.

Americans seem to go through periods of ignoring the rest of the world or obsessing about our image abroad. Castañeda, a long-time observer of the United States, thinks that in this more global, interconnected age we should pay more attention to how others perceive us.

He begins with a discussion of American exceptionalism and explains that, in addition to our constitution, establishing the first truly middle class society may have been the most far-reaching accomplishment of the early United States. Of course as with many other aspects of American life, a middle class life was only available to “acceptable” citizens. Blacks, the indigenous, and “undesirable” immigrants (i.e., non-White) were left out.

Castañeda goes on to discuss the worldwide attraction of American culture and civilization and he has an interesting section on American entrepreneurialism and ingenuity. He believes the ability of Wall Street to finance talented people and new ideas is one of America’s under appreciated strengths and an advantage in any international economic competition.

This book is a rare look at us from an outside perspective. Castañeda’s views are candid and insightful, though his verbiage leans toward the scholarly. As one practitioner of long and wandering sentences to another, however, I think this book could have used one more edit to clean up some mangled syntax and its many meandering run-on sentences. But of course Castañeda is writing in his second language and maybe it comes off better in Spanish.

After the Fall, Being American in the World We’ve Made by Ben Rhodes

Ben Rhodes is a former Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications in the Obama White House and currently a writer, consultant, and political commentator. Mirroring his family roots, he split his education between Rice University in Texas and New York University in Manhattan.

In this book, Rhodes argues that with the collapse of communism in 1989-1991, the United States stood astride the world to a “preeminence unparalleled in history,” able to spread unfettered its triumphant model of free markets, free people, and peaceful rules-based commerce and cooperation. But within 30 years, all that changed. He wanted to know how that happened.

Soon after the election of 2016, with a feeling the Trump victory had turned his world upside down, Rhodes began to travel abroad, talking and listening to old acquaintances freely and unofficially in an attempt to ascertain what the future would be like in a world we essentially had made, but no longer could lead as before. He spent parts of three years with officials and dissidents in Hungary, Russia, Hong Kong, and elsewhere who were experiencing threats to their inchoate democracies from authoritarianism.

He describes the pattern most budding autocrats take to cement their power: adopt an identity nationalism that isolates “others” (immigrants, minorities, educated elites) from “real” citizens; use social and mass media propaganda to divide and arouse; pack the judiciary to ensure favorable decisions; rig election laws and procedures to marginalize the opposition, and in Russia, institute “constitutional reforms.” It’s a pattern Rhodes saw around the world—and also at home. And, as Rhodes admits, none of this started with Donald Trump.

Rhodes’ most insightful portions of the book center on what some scholars call the elongated reason cycle, a theory that revulsion over the crimes and savagery of World War II produced an artificial post-war period of realpolitik cooperation among the great powers bent on avoiding a repetition. But with the passing of those memories, the rise of globalization, and the shock of the 2008-09 Great Recession, the world has lost confidence in international institutions and the American leadership role in sustaining them.

This is a beautifully written combination of reportage and personal memoir, as Rhodes tells his family immigrant story and ties it to the American story. This is an important book for anyone wondering where we are and where we go next.

Ed Guest lives and reads in East Burke.