For many, this bellicose language was hardly a surprise. The president has a penchant for picking fights. The focus in the news was on the comment’s immediate impact: would it lead to nuclear war? Deeper journalistic dives into the burgeoning crisis have stepped back to give a broader picture of the historical relations with the DPRK. Many commentators pointed out that the DPRK has long bragged of its nuclear capabilities. Some stories have included a discussion of the Sony Pictures hack in response to the release of the movie The Interview (2014). Any broader historical context has typically been contained to a short overview of the DPRK’s history since the Korean War.
But why does this situation exist in the first place? The origins predate Kim Il-sung’s final consolidation of power in the 1956 August Faction Incident. One must go back to the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, which the Korean people responded to with a nationalistic guerrilla movement led in part by Kim Il-sung. That period of colonization was followed immediately by the colonizing efforts (deemed “occupations”) begun at the end of World War II by China and the Soviet Union in the north and the United States in the south, which initiated the division of Korea into two separate zones or states. At that point, Kim Il-sung rose to power in the north and initiated a dynasty, as well as a foreign policy that continues to affect our world.
This current political crisis has its roots in decisions made before any of the current players in the crisis were born. But does teasing out the dense, complicated history of colonization in the Korean peninsula change the present? Can knowledge of the history provide a way out of the current crisis?
In Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, Suzy Hansen posits that the answer to these questions is, at least potentially, yes. Hansen, who has lived in Istanbul, Turkey, for a decade while working as a foreign correspondent, unravels the history of American imperialism in Turkey and on her assignments in Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. Turkey and Istanbul, as Hansen discusses, have been touted as potential “solutions” to the “problem” of Islam, a “proof” that a secular democratic governmental structure and a predominantly Islamic electorate can coexist. This view, Hansen finds, is reductive and problematic, generated by and supporting Western and American imperialist power structures.
Hansen first moved to Istanbul in 2007 on a journalistic writing fellowship and has lived there ever since, reporting on the Greek financial crisis, the Americans’ vain attempts to nation-build in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring in Egypt, and, more recently, the attempted coup in Turkey. Prior to this, though, Hansen had little experience of the world beyond the United States’s boundaries. Born and raised in a small city in New Jersey, she found herself ill-equipped (despite an Ivy League education) to understand the global events that had been pushed to the fore of American consciousness in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
Her mission as a journalist in Istanbul, as she saw it, was to help herself and her fellow Americans better understand the realities of the Muslim world, and perhaps to solve the Muslim problem:
For the last eighty years […] the Turks had been wrestling with this secularizing experiment perhaps with lessons for all of us. Wasn’t Turkey the one Muslim country that, in those days, gave hope? Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” seemed more intellectual than martial in Turkey, and I saw the country like some idea lab dreamed up for my benefit.
The language Hansen uses in these passages detailing her early perspective are important: Turkey is an experimental lab that will provide lessons for “my” — read: Americans’ — benefit. As the book progresses, her perspective expands; Hansen highlights how even these “positive” ways of viewing Turkey are themselves steeped in imperialism. The focus is solely on benefitting one group:
Many of us unconsciously settled for these softer versions of oppression, the kinds that fit easily into the American vision of its place in the world: as guardian and enforcer. I had believed […] that “Islam” was a thing that I, an American abroad, should be thinking about solutions to, because that’s what Americans always do.
Hansen begins to discover that neither Turkey nor Islam are monolithic. Each has its own groups and power structures, which, in turn, can be subdivided into further groups, which can be further subdivided until one arrives at a collection of individuals, each with their own desires, perspectives, and goals. She begins, to put it bluntly, to see the people who live in Turkey as humans, not as objects in an American power play.
As she began to settle in, Hansen noticed that many Turks didn’t fully trust her, some going so far as to call her an American spy. Her friend suggests “that maybe [Hansen] was a postmodern spy — a spy who didn’t know she was a spy.” “Like all foreign correspondents,” he tells her, “you’re sending back information that, no matter how you intended it, will no doubt be used in the worst way imaginable.” This suggestion triggers an epiphany that hangs over the entire book: Americans may be imperialists and not even known it, including the American going to Turkey with the goal of critiquing that imperialism.
Hansen uses a litany of horrifying historical examples of American imperialism to combat what she sees as the standard American practice of pretending that it isn’t a colonial force: “Rejecting the word ‘empire’ had long been a way for Americans to avoid taking responsibility for acting like one, which was a habit embedded into the American character from the moment of its birth.” Hansen details the United States’s role sponsoring or, at the very least, strongly encouraging coups in Turkey and Greece; propping up a repressive, anti-democratic regime in Egypt; and the various ways that the United States’s so-called nation-building devolved into colonialism.
The ongoing American mess in Afghanistan, as seen through Hansen’s eyes, reveals the pernicious uncertainty of American imperialism. This evolved form of colonialism is decentralized, diffused into countless competing interests, but all emanating from a single homeland. Various wings of the military, the State Department, NGOs, and private corporations all work together and against each other, competing for space within the “reconstruction effort.” While the vague goal of reconstruction is shared across these different groups, the paths toward that goal diverge. The group or coalition that can best manipulate power will emerge victorious. Meanwhile, the people of Afghanistan — like those of other countries touched by American imperialism — are disenfranchised.
The current situation within the United States isn’t directly addressed, but one can’t help but draw connections. Hansen herself relates the slow decline of American power abroad with the rise of nationalism at home, which conditioned the election of Donald Trump. She doesn’t delve deeply into foreign policy differences between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Her aim is broader; she suggests that the United States has one basic foreign policy: the extension of American influence, often leading to violations of sovereignty and human rights. The forces that perpetuate these violations are not connected to a specific political party. They emanate from a multifaceted power system, which draws its immense strength in part from its decentralization.
It would be difficult for an American reader not feel changed by this book. By framing the history of American imperialism within her own journey from innocence to knowledge, Hansen serves as a guide to whom we all can easily relate. The assumption, though, is that we can follow her path from the comfort of our own homes. This is both the blessing and the curse of the book. It will open the eyes of readers who lack the means, opportunity, or desire to spend a decade abroad researching and living global politics. But it also presupposes the privilege of those readers, their distance from the destructive outcomes of American foreign policy. It challenges readers to reflect on their isolationist privilege, but, in so doing, comforts them.
The trouble, as Hansen’s friend understood, is that the production of knowledge does not necessarily lead to positive outcomes. The dominant power structure can use new knowledge to continue its consolidation of power and exploitation of the powerless. Hansen never really addresses her friend’s critique. Indeed, the book’s very existence implies that, however much she questions the supposed objectivity of the Western press, she still believes in journalism’s ability to reveal the truth and, in revealing it, to right wrongs, serve the cause of justice, improve the world. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. But, as usual, matters are much more complex.
Notes on a Foreign Country can be read as an institutional critique of the American power structure. The idea is that, by exposing that structure to the sunlight of journalism, Hansen can highlight its flaws and encourage resistance. However, this act of institutional critique can also aid the power structure — it can help the institution it critiques better understand how to avoid future critiques, how to gird and perpetuate itself. Hansen offers no clear directive for resistance, and her reporting may, at least potentially, enable elements of the clever exploitative system she criticizes learn how to cover its tracks all the more thoroughly.
Another question arises: what isn’t tainted at its root? One is reminded of the narrator’s conversation with Cornelis de Jong in W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995), about the ongoing impact of the capital amassed through the sugar trade’s exploitation of slave labor. This immense surplus capital, according to de Jong, ended up funding museums like the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands, and the Tate Gallery, London. Sebald’s narrator recalls:
At times it seems to me, said de Jong, as if all works of art were coated with a sugar glaze or indeed made completely of sugar, like the model of the battle of Esztergom created by a confectioner to the Viennese court, which Empress Maria Theresia, so it is said, devoured in one of her recurrent bouts of melancholy.
Hansen’s book is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), which was run independently for decades, until a majority stake in the company was sold to the German publishing conglomerate Holtzbrinck Publishing Group in 1993. This is one of the many transactions in the ongoing consolidation of the mass publishing industry over the last few decades. Holtzbrinck Publishing Group was officially founded in 1948, in the aftermath of World War II. Over a decade ago, it was revealed that the founder, Georg von Holtzbrinck, was a member of the Nazi Party whose initial forays into publishing relied at least in part on his willingness to distribute Nazi-sponsored magazines and books. The profits and infrastructure created through this enterprise became, after the war, Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which decades later went on to become one of the largest publishing conglomerates in the world, gobbling up publishers across Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States, including FSG.
Does this invalidate FSG’s offerings? Not at all. Should we be aware of the legacies of violence and exploitation? Absolutely. These are among the complex and painful lessons of Hansen’s book. If we follow the clues of history, we are unlikely to find pristine origins. The evils of this world are deeply rooted, and all we can do is expose them. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that this exposure will result in greater justice. Attempts to dismantle American imperialism from within the power structure may only lead to the structure’s transformation. Will its new form be less harmful? We can hope, and, with that hope, take action. There is no other option.
Andrew Wessels is a poet and translator who currently lives in Los Angeles. He has lived in Istanbul, Turkey, where he taught writing at Koç University. His first book of poems, A Turkish Dictionary, was published by 1913 Press in 2017, and Semi Circle, a chapbook of translations of Nurduran Duman’s poems, is available from Goodmorning Menagerie.