The American Lens: A review of Why America Misunderstands the World

Pillar, Paul R. Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and Roots of Misconception. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016, 224 pages. Hardcover, $29.95.

Sun Tzu wrote, “If you know your enemy and you know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles…” With few exceptions, the history of the United States shows that it has often acted without appreciating the dynamics of events occurring outside its borders. Dr. Pillar, in Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and Roots of Misconception, offers:

“One is that to understand a nation’s decision and behavior requires understanding the perspective that the people in that nation including its decision makers have acquired through their shared national experience.” He adds, “The other lesson is that the portion of the U.S. bureaucracy [U.S. Intelligence Community] in which I formerly worked is not the principal guide for major decisions in U.S. foreign policy.” He expands the two lessons to include a third: “That Americans’ shared national experience heavily influences the way Americans perceive the outside world, which in turn has a major influence on U.S. foreign policy.”

From its founding, the United States has enjoyed the isolation that the two oceans have provided. Pillar argues that geographically the U.S. was able to mature without being vulnerable to influence and interference by the European powers. With only a few minor exceptions during World Wars I and II, the territory of the U.S. was secure which has “ingrained in Americans certain habits of thinking about America’s place in the world. However, this changed with the attacks of September 11, 2001 and has forever changed “American psyche.”

A career intelligence officer, Pillar served in a number of senior positions within the intelligence community including National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. In his previous book, he argues the U.S. intelligence community has not been the major influencer in foreign policy and sets out in Why America Misunderstands the World that “distinctive circumstances and history of the United States yield distinctive, important, and policy-relevant ways that Americans perceive the rest of the world.”

President Bush on September 14, 2001, during an impromptu speech at Ground Zero saying, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” How long did the world listen? Photo courtesy George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

Pillar bases his argument on the concept that Americans fail to realize that often what American leaders have ordered the military and intelligence services to do to protect the country, outsiders perceive as threats to their nation. President George W. Bush after 9/11 said, “I am amazed that there is such a misunderstanding of what our country is about, that people would hate us” and political scientist Samuel Huntington argued, “Americans see their country as a positive force in the world, but the rest of the world is decidedly ambivalent.”

Pillar uses historical events ranging from the natural wealth of the nation to the “marginalization of Native Americans” to build his case. He illustrates how playing cowboys and indians as youngsters has affected the imagery of America’s wars. Soldiers in many wars used “Injun country” to describe the enemy’s territory or the area outside the safety of the “wire” or T-walls that surround today’s camps and bases.

Army Chief of Staff Gen Eric Shinseki challenged the Bush administration over troop requirements before Operation Iraqi Freedom, “…something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed to secure Iraq.

More often, it is not the military leaders that have driven U.S. involvement in foreign wars but political appointees, which Pillar argues “weakens whatever check the bureaucracy may have over decision makers’ over simplifying, shortcutting thought processes, in addition to politicizing the bureaucracy’s output.” This was evident in the war planning after 9/11 when Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz declared to U.S. generals that U.S. forces would be down to approximately 30,000 troops a few months after the invasion. Instead, it would peak at over 168,000 four and half years after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Pillar discusses the “Jacksonian perspective” espoused by Walter Russell Mead, which states, “[Americans] see war as a switch that is either on or off. They don’t like the idea of violence on a dimmer switch. Either the stakes are important enough to fight for, in which case you should fight with everything you have, or they aren’t important enough to fight for, in which case you should mind your own business and stay home.” Pillar argues that the perspective or imagery of threat which in the past needed to be defeated (World War II) or contained (Cold War) does not fit well with the idea of a war on terror — an idea which lacks the characteristic nation-state. The idea of “war” insinuates that there are military targets that can be attacked with military weapons — tanks, aircraft, and ships — while, as we now see, the enemy is hidden in apartments in Brussels, Paris, and San Bernardino.

Why America Misunderstands the World is a well-written and researched look at contemporary American foreign policy. It may hit the nerves of some Americans with deep ingrained thoughts of American exceptionalism, of seeing the world divided between the good guys and the bad guys. Pillar’s examination of American foreign policy is insightful and forces the reader to reexamine many decisions made with emotion and which lacked the critical thought process that should be natural for policy makers.

“…Correct perceptions are not what require study and explanation. Correct perceptions are what should flow, naturally and unsurprisingly, from directly facing reality without distorting influences. It is incorrect perceptions that require explanations. Incorrect perceptions also have been more consequential in contributing to bad policies, including costly and unsuccessful wars.”

The United States has been blessed with good leaders and Pillar’s look at the future argues that the United States must carefully select its future leaders. As America moves through the political process of electing the next president, the ongoing political debate has often reexamined decisions made by past U.S. leaders. Some of the debate continues to include perceptions that cannot stand close scrutiny that makes Why America Misunderstands the World a timely book for political pundits and history junkies but one that American’s wishing to make better decisions for the future should read!

Dave Mattingly is a writer and national security consultant. He retired from the U.S. Navy with over thirty years of service. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, NETGALLEY Challenge 2015 and a NETGALLEY Professional Reader.