Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception

(Columbia University Press, 2016)

Book Forum
December 15, 2016
11:00AM to 12:30PM
Hayek Auditorium, Cato Institute
Featuring the author Paul Pillar, Researcher, Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University; Nonresident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; with comments by Robert Jervis, Adlai Stevenson Professor of International Politics, Columbia University; Trevor Thrall, Associate Professor, School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs, George Mason University; Senior Fellow, Cato Institute; moderated by Benjamin H. Friedman, Research Fellow in Defense and Homeland Security Studies, Cato Institute.

Why America Misunderstands the World
The United States’ historical advantages cause its people to misperceive international affairs, according to Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception. The author, Paul Pillar, who spent most of his career interpreting foreign actions at the CIA, argues that intelligence analysis has limited impact on how U.S. policy-makers look at the world. American culture, which comes from historical experience, instead plays the leading role.


That experience has been exceptionally fortunate, Pillar writes. Geographic remoteness from threatening rivals, abundant resources, and a liberal consensus produced great wealth, safety, power and political stability. Americans often take these blessings for granted, Pillar argues, or as proof of innate superiority.

One result is underestimation of the difficulties foreign nations face in achieving security, prosperity and unity. Another is overestimation of U.S. power to correct foreign troubles. We tend, according to Pillar, toward a Manichean worldview, where the goodness of U.S. action is taken as obvious, nationalistic resistance to it is surprising, and hostile actors’ unity and aggression is routinely exaggerated.