‘Why America Misunderstands the World’ by Paul R. Pillar

August 20, 2017

As a member of the CIA for 28 years, Paul R. Pillar made a career of under­standing the underlying ration­ale behind foreign governments’ actions.
In his book, “Why America Mis­understands the World: National Experience and Roots of Mispercep­tion,” Pillar points his analytical lens at his own country in a well-thought-out examination of the United States’ distinct history and its psychological, policy-shaping consequences.
The book’s premise is that a coun­try’s experiences inevitably colour its citizens’ shared perception of their role in the world and the nature of their neighbours and foes.
Pillar highlights two characteristics of US history that serve as precursors to what he said is a misguided world view.
First, there is the United States’ location “behind the ocean moats,” far removed from any significant threat to its sovereignty. Pil­lar said this fostered an unparalleled sense of optimism and naivety in the American psyche.
In wars with its neighbours Cana­da and Mexico, American ex­pansionism was the dominant theme with neither adversary posing any significant threat. Victory on the southern bor­der in 1846 was swift, culminating in the United States annexing huge amounts of territory and ultimately closing off further conflict.
Canada’s sovereign power Britain posed some concern. However, the War of 1812 along the US-Canadian frontier proved more of an oppor­tunity than a crisis for the United States and after three years ended with a resounding American victory.
What followed were 100 years of existence without interference from overseas forces.
“This century of immunity profoundly influenced how Ameri­cans think about national security and about threats that one nation can pose to another,” he wrote , highlight­ing the resulting inability to appreciate circum­stances of countries not similarly blessed.
Pillar’s sec­ond impor­tant historical perception moulder is the US mainland’s geological richness and the ensu­ing sense of moral superior­ity among its population. Some of the most fertile soil in the world, large coal deposits and vast resource-rich forests cover North America, the acquisition of which came rather easily, either via relatively swift conflicts or by exchange.
The great fortune of having successfully inhabited a relatively sparsely populated and nutritious land combined with the Christian narrative essential to American psy­chology — despite being firmly re­moved from politics by its founding fathers — yields the self-image of a chosen people upon which God has bestowed extraordinary privilege.
This explains why Americans tend to view themselves as “pure of heart, consistently well intentioned and consistently beneficial in their influence” in the global scene, Pillar said.
The book does an excellent job of linking specific national sentiments to misunderstandings that manifest in bad foreign policy. America’s tendency to view terrorism as a fun­damentally foreign problem is con­sistent with the nation’s perceived exceptionalism, for example.
The same good-versus-evil men­tality is evident in interventions in the Middle East, Pillar said, in which the United States has consist­ently shown low sensitivity towards regional issues with which it cannot relate.
The book uses the example of US President George W. Bush’s care­less wade into Iraq, where a marked increase in Iranian influence and the accentuation of sectarian senti­ments proved beyond America’s range of understanding.
The United States’ persistent defence of Israel is similarly tied to historical narrative, Pillar wrote. Similarities between the two coun­tries’ experiences of building a na­tion driven by a divine will fosters a misinformed image of the Palestin­ian struggle. “There never has been talk of a ‘two-state solution’ involv­ing Native Americans,” Pillar said.
Asked whether globalisation and technological innovation were im­proving US foreign policy, Pillar said “fake news” is proving a hindrance.
“Access to bad information has expanded at least as much, and probably more, than access to valid information,” Pillar said by e-mail.
As US President Donald Trump begins to unveil his attitude towards the world beyond the ocean moats, Pillar said he sees traces of the same old American prejudices.
“Particularly prominent in Trump’s foreign policy is the ten­dency to see the world in sharply divided, good-versus-evil terms that oversimplify a much more complex reality,” Pillar said.
The themes discussed in the book are not unique to the United States. After all, historical hang-ups silently inform the foreign policies of every country but Pillar said that, in his view, American biases are more pro­nounced and more influential.
“US power and global reach make the foreign policy consequences of any such misunderstanding all the more consequential not just for Americans but for everyone else,” he said.
What Pillar offers are not excuses but nuanced historical explanations to why the United States seems to consistently misunderstand the world.