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American Today


New Books Examine America—and Americans—Overseas

By Mike Unger

At first blush, two new international books seem quite different. Delve a little deeper, as the authors did during an Oct. 23 book launch party and their similarities become apparent.

Two books: two sides of the Americans overseas ‘coin’

Ray Leki teaches at SIS, and as director of the State Department’s Transition Center at the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center he was well equipped to write Travel Wise: How to be Safe, Savvy, and Secure Abroad, a guide for Americans traveling abroad in all capacities—an endeavor that changed dramatically after 9/11.

Professor Gary Weaver, SIS, and alumnus Adam Mendelson ’06 took on the nation’s altered place in the post-9/11 world from a different perch in America’s Mid-Life Crisis: The Future of a Troubled Superpower. “It’s hard for the rest of the world to understand a country that felt totally secure behind two very large oceans for hundreds of years; and that security disappeared in three or four hours,” resulting, Weaver said, in a nation “preoccupied with fear and insecurity.”

Leki argues that we must not allow fear and insecurity to overtake us when we travel abroad. His book is an effort to “help people enjoy intercultural interactions by being a bit more prepared, a bit more understanding of the shortcomings and strengths Americans bring to their intercultural sojourns,” he said.

Leki draws on a lifetime of international travel in which he spent time as a Peace Corps volunteer and staffer, as well as nearly two decades at the State Department Foreign Service Institute.

“The joy of intercultural work is going overseas and entering new cultures, [learning] new ways of thinking, and coming back richer for the experience . . . But when you get off the plane in Calcutta, that’s not what awaits you. The embrace isn’t there.” Americans abroad need “patience, skill, and awareness that aren’t automatically issued when you get your ticket or passport,” said Leki. “You have to develop those things, and you have to realize that the most significant piece of baggage that you’ll ever bring is yourself and your own attitudes about safety and security.”

Some practical advice

“I could never understand about this book and myself . . . how I’d ever be a public spokesman against sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but here you have it folks,” Leki told the chuckling Mary Graydon Center crowd. “You look at the three ways people get in trouble overseas . . . from the causal tourist to the very experienced traveler . . . You want to increase the threat that’s posed to you?Sex and drugs are wonderful ways to increase the risk.”

Americans abroad, a midlife crisis?

“When we come out of this Iraq war and the current crisis, what role are we going to play in the world? We have to redefine ourselves, and there’s this longing to go back to the way it was . . . this longing for the sports car and irresponsibility you might have had when you were young
. . . Can we get beyond that? Can we accept that we are going to be involved in the world?” asks Weaver.

His book examines America’s attitude and philosophy toward foreign policy and the rest of the world throughout its history.

Consider, said Weaver, “the United States before the Spanish-American War,” it was a young nation [in] “a period of childhood innocence . . . removed from the rest of the world by two oceans.”Weaver then described how during World War II the nation apparently grew up, only to return after the war to a state of idealism. Next came the Cold War, “so we couldn’t disengage,” recounted Weaver.When it ended, the nation wanted to withdraw again, “unilateralism was the modern version of isolationism . . . Along comes 9/11, and it was obvious we couldn’t withdraw from the world.”

So what comes next?

According to Weaver, “Europeans would say, come on, it’s terrible that the United States was attacked, but there comes a point when you have to move on. You’re not the first country that’s ever been attacked, and you Americans act like you’re the only people who have ever fought a war.”

But for us, it’s very new.

“Many people around the world can’t empathize with the United States,” he said. “If you understand our country and our history, it becomes apparent that for us, we haven’t gotten over it.”