March 29, 2016

Why America Misunderstands the World

On March 29, 2016 Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies hosted a talk with Paul Pillar, a researcher at the center and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The event was co-sponsored by the Mortara Center for International Studies.

Pillar is a veteran of the CIA, having served from 1977 until 2005. His talk, provocatively titled “Why America Misunderstands the World,” was based on his book of the same name. He addressed the shared national experiences and culture that influence U.S. leaders and policymakers and in turn shape American grand strategy and policy.

Geography, according to Pillar, plays a role in U.S. perceptions and foreign policy optimism. Separation from the rest of the world by two large oceans has led policymakers to see the U.S. as invulnerable and created an innate optimism about chances of success in overseas intervention.

The same relative geographic isolation also causes Americans to undervalue issues of regional security and stable relationships among neighboring countries. While Finlandization is a term used with some derision in the United States, Europeans and those in other regions recognize the importance of stable and even neutral relationships in the presence of so many close neighbors.

Pillar also argued that Americans have not had some of the same revolutionary experiences as the rest of the world. While there was undoubtedly the Civil Rights Movement and widespread cultural change in the latter half of the twentieth century, the United States has not seen a socialist revolution or some of the big social changes that took place elsewhere. Instead, the United States was fundamentally shaped by a liberal democratic and multicultural experience, without the ideological and governance struggles faced elsewhere.

Given that lack of fundamental ideological conflict, U.S. policymakers are shaped by an American history that tells them things are mostly manageable and negotiable. Mutually acceptable solutions can always be found—though in reality things across the world are often much “stickier.”

War is also relatively less frequent in U.S. history than it has been elsewhere in the world. Americans, according to Pillar, are more likely to see war as “an on/off switch.” War has become something winnable, with a clear beginning and end and easily distinguishable right and wrong sides.

When asked about how to address these issues, Pillar noted that competing ideas and debate can help. The United States can learn from costly lessons and losses like Vietnam, but it must confront monolithic thinking in order to eliminate large blind spots and embrace nuance and complexity over simplistic frameworks.

Pillar’s book was published by Columbia University Press in February 2016.

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