At a time when many people both inside and outside the U.S. are struggling to understand the dynamics of the presidential campaign and its rhetoric this year, Paul Pillar offers some insights in his new book Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception.
The focus of his study is on the national framework of American perspectives that encourages looking at the world in sometimes overly optimistic terms and the dangerous impact thereof on foreign policy. Encased between two oceans framing the American continent and full of massive natural resources with no immediate enemies, Pillar argues that Americans tend to see a world through a lens of America’s “exceptionalism,” the proverbial “City on a Hill” ideal based on universal principles which he sees as a prerequisite for clashes with other nations with a very different national narrative of the world.
Pillar sees that America’s self-perception has been by its unique geographical position, without “close and continuous interaction or competition with other countries that would have challenged American ideology and American conventional wisdom.”
He argues that this exceptional situation, which engendered a sense of invulnerability, inhibits understanding of the perception and reality in other countries concerning fears and threats, including those emerging from the actions and policies of the United States. As he puts it, “The failure to perceive or comprehend multiple sources of resistance to U.S. undertakings has arisen repeatedly since the Cold War, especially the failure to understand that resistance to U.S. military operations overseas can be as diffuse and not evil as ordinary people becoming upset over damage those operations cause to their lives.”
The language of American foreign policy, often laden with references to good and evil such as references to the “evil empire” and “axis of evil,” underline his argument that there is a tendency to demonize enemies, which leaves less room for negotiations or political change.
Pillar depicts the roots of such attitudes, which lie in the desire among Americans to deal with conflict or threats, in an “on-off switch” way. Once the switch is on, the policy is to “win” and then celebrate victory. Then the switch is off. But the idea of dealing with generational conflicts or continual threats and attacks is more difficult to swallow in such a mindset. Pillar points to the experiences of other countries that don’t believe in such reprieves.
The depiction of this black and white approach to foreign policy is in Pillar’s mind a product of domestic policy incentives among leaders to secure support amid an American public disinclined to deal with long-term confrontations. Yet, the experience of the Cold War seems to contradict that assessment. That conflict with the Soviet Union lasted decades and the American public was on the whole supportive of consecutive presidents presiding over it. Yet, as Pillar pointed out, the experiences in Vietnam or even in Korea before were presented as part of the zero-sum confrontation between freedom and communism instead of the far more complicated set of motivations and interests involved in global conflicts.
It should also not be forgotten that the engagement of American foreign policy was not measured solely by military force. It has involved an enormous amount of effort to support other countries with aid and protection. Former enemies such as Germany and Japan are the best examples.
Pillar suggests that American foreign policy has, for almost the entire existence of the United States, been shaped by a debate between the need to search out and destroy monsters around the globe and the need to act more as a model for other countries to emulate. He argues that that debate is currently being staged again in the presidential campaigns of 2016. In my view, his assessment is somewhat one-sided but does offer reminders of how a national narrative can be shaped in the heat of political domestic combat at the expense of reality checks.