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Why America Misunderstands the World

National Experience and Roots of Misperception

Why America Misunderstands the World by Paul Pillar
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Paul R. Pillar’s provocative new book ties the American public’s misconceptions about foreign threats and behaviors to the nation’s history and geography, arguing that American success in international relations is achieved often in spite of rather than because of the public’s worldview. These cultural and political misunderstandings run deep, Pillar explains, and persist even when subsequent events contradict them.

A host of social, economic, and geographical advantages has coarsened America's attitude toward other, less fortunate countries. Being insulated by two immense oceans makes it hard for Americans to appreciate the concerns of more exposed countries. American democracy’s rapid rise fools many into thinking the same liberal system can flourish anywhere. Having populated a vast continent with relative ease impedes understanding of conflicts between different peoples over other lands.

Drawing a fascinating line from colonial times to America’s handling of modern international terrorism, Pillar shows how presumption and misperception turned Finlandization into a dirty word in American policy circles, bolstered the for us or against us” attitude that characterized the policies of the George W. Bush administration, and continue to obscure the reasons behind Iraq’s close relationship with Iran. Fundamental misunderstandings have created a cycle in which threats are underestimated before an attack occurs and then are overestimated after they happen. By shining a light on this longstanding tradition of misperception, Pillar hopes the United States can develop policies that better address international realities rather than biased beliefs.
Columbia University Press; March 2016
224 pages; ISBN 9780231540353
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Title: Why America Misunderstands the World
Author: Paul Pillar