Q&A: Thomas Borstelmann on the American Struggle to Understanding Foreigners

This is one of those books that sticks with you. Borstelmann asks a big question—about U.S. attitudes toward foreigners—and has an important argument to make. What is more, Just Like Us sparkles with telling details and unexpected connections. It is, plainly put, masterful.

~Daniel Immerwahr, author of How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States

We’re closing out our SHAFR conference virtual exhibit with this Q&A with Thomas Borstelmann, the Elwood and Katherine Thompson Distinguished Professor of Modern World History at the University of Nebraska. His new book, Just Like Us: The American Struggle to Understand Foreigners, explores the complicated relationship between American diversity and ideas of exclusion and foreignness throughout the country’s history. Despite racial divides and ups and downs in cooperative foreign policy, as seen in the present moment, Borstelmann illustrates how the United States’ origins as a nation of newcomers equips it to overcome these conflicts and emerge stronger and more inclusive over time.

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Q: You mention American ambivalence about non-Americans, identifying a paradoxical perception of foreigners as suspiciously different yet fundamentally sharing American values beneath the layers of culture. Can you explain then what foreignness means within American culture?

Thomas Borstelmann: “Foreign” comes from the Latin for “door” and “outside”: that which is outside the door and thus not part of us, here on the inside of the door. All cultures try to distinguish between themselves and outsiders. But from the very beginning down to today, American culture has been built by migrants who have come from elsewhere, along with their descendants who have continued to engage with the rest of the world. So Americans may often seem ethnocentric, but they are also remarkably universalistic: most Americans tend to imagine other peoples as mostly being, in their hearts, like us. And the course of American history has extended U.S. influence and engagement into every corner of the globe, steadily reducing the sphere of what is foreign to Americans. We may argue about immigration or international trade or overseas wars or global pandemics, but the United States has been busy furiously incorporating human diversity into its ranks. The result is the most diverse, globalized great power in human history.

Q: Your book posits three perceived great subversive threats to Americans from outsiders: immigrants, communists, and peoples Americans encounter abroad. Might the recent rise of white nationalism be a fourth?

TB: Possibly. Historians are not a lot better than others at predicting the future. But we do know a great deal about the patterns that have brought us to today. Anxieties in the past about possible subversion by outsiders arose in a society that had a large majority descended from European immigrants. In our lifetimes, this demography is shifting rapidly; within two decades, the United States will be a majority-minority country. Such a transition will likely confirm my book’s argument about the increasing inclusiveness of American life and the shrinking realm of what is considered foreign. Some resistance to this pattern will continue to ebb and flow, just as it has in the past. The recent rise of so-called white nationalism—or the vocal assertion of white supremacism—has been shocking in its bluntness. But it represents a small and diminishing slice of Americans. The larger story may well be the dramatic recent increase in white public support for demands for greater racial justice.

Q: Your book finishes with an argument that American culture has been perhaps the most subversive force in recent world history. Does this still seem true after the inward turn of Trumpian “America First” policies?

TB: There is no doubt that the three and a half years since the election of 2016 have witnessed a measurable deterioration in how people around the world view the U.S. government. The current administration is widely seen as insulting to its allies, hostile to diplomacy and international coordination, peculiarly fond of autocracies, and transparently transactional in all its international dealings. This “America First” orientation accelerated preexisting disillusionment abroad with U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But underneath these specific policies from Washington, American culture has continued to spread its deeper, subversive influences around the globe. Its twin emphases on individual freedom and material acquisition appeal to core human desires. This is the tip of the spear of global consumer capitalism, and it comes in the alluring forms of American-flavored films, music, dress, technology, and attitudes. It’s potentially democratic, profoundly individualistic, powerfully inclusive, and potently subversive of more traditional and hierarchical cultures.

Q: You observe that the history of foreign relations and the history of immigration have for too long been studied separately in scholarship and in university classrooms. How are they connected to each other?

TB: Our history is a single seamless garment. We cut it up into manageable chunks in order to make sense of it, and scholarly historians do this more than anyone. Then we do the same thing in our classrooms. We offer courses on “the United States in the world” or “immigration in American history.” But these are closely linked parts of a single story. An older history of top-down policy making in Washington actually fits hand in glove with a newer history of the movements of peoples (and goods and ideas) across borders. Political and diplomatic history are not separable from social and cultural history. All of the leading nations from which migrants come to the United States have long histories of deep U.S. involvement in them: military, economic, political, and cultural involvement, much of it often deeply exploitative. It’s not a coincidence that people from the Philippines, El Salvador, Vietnam, Mexico, and China come to the United States. Americans went there first, and their disruptive influence helped create conditions that drove many peoples in those places eventually to leave.

Explore our virtual booth and read the introduction to Just Like Us: The American Struggle to Understand ForeignersFor the duration of what would have been the conference weekend, you can use the code SHAFR20 at checkout from our website for a 30 percent discount on any of our conference titles.

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