What’s gone wrong in America? An outsider explains, and offers a warning

THE WASHINGTON POST – America’s sobering reckoning has been laid bare for the world to see – a nation beset by protests and rioting over police abuses, growing inequalities, a pandemic and resurgent white supremacists. Added to this season of discontent: A landmark presidential election looms just months away.

In his latest book, America Through Foreign Eyes, Jorge G Castañeda, Mexico’s former foreign minister and a longtime professor at New York University, critically dissects what’s gone wrong from the perspective of a well-informed and often admiring outsider. As has often been true, the eyes of an outsider prove more lucid than those of natives.

Castañeda holds a mirror up to America and warns that the once-shining model for much of the world is now crumbling. “Please don’t hold this against me: The United States itself is at fault,” he writes. “Like a great many people on earth, I’ve long been fascinated by this remarkable phenomenon which calls itself America.”

As Castañeda sees it, the United States (US) 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 US-Mexico integration of the past three decades and of the more recent democratisation in our homeland, Mexico. We share too often unrequited love and hope for both countries.

I first met Castañeda in the late 1980s as a Mexico correspondent for a US newspaper, and our paths crossed now and then while I reported on the country. I was 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 US 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 US.

“This book is not written from a Mexican perspective,” Castañeda wrote, “but rather from that of a sympathetic foreign critic who has seen the United States from both inside and outside.”

The US-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. “Having lost half its territory to the United States in the 19th Century, having found itself caught up in the maelstrom of America’s current identity crisis,” Castañeda 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 US, 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 per cent of respondents said they trusted Trump’s handling of international affairs, down from 64 per cent who had had confidence in President Barack Obama.