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Understanding How Others See Us

Paul Pillar builds on Bob Wright’s comments about Ron Paul:

The most important aspect of foreign viewpoints to be understood is how foreigners view the United States itself, and U.S. policies and actions. Those views go a long way to determining how much U.S. interests can be advanced by obtaining the cooperation of foreign governments, and how much U.S. interests are endangered by countervailing action taken by governments that fear, resent or hate what the United States is doing. Realists, or more precisely neo-realists, understand well that when the United States or any other power is seen as a threat we can expect other states to balance against it in an effort to check its influence.

One of the worst things to happen to American understanding of how foreigners see the U.S. government and its policies was the self-congratulatory answer that many politicians gave to the question, “Why do they hate us?” Invariably, the approved answer to this question was either that “we” are free and prosperous and “they” are envious, or simply that “we” are free and prosperous and “they” are fanatically opposed to freedom as such. While this was applied initially to jihadists, it was an answer that could be used to explain away many other criticisms from other governments and other nations. What wasn’t acceptable a decade ago was to recognize that there were ever U.S. actions that were provocative or outrageous to other people around the world. Just paying attention to other nations’ grievances was considered a sign of weakness. Under those circumstances, it’s not surprising that the next major policy decision that followed was one that outraged most of the world and deeply damaged U.S. interests.

One of the many flaws of the self-righteous moralizing interventionist is that he often takes delight in the world’s scorn, and he seems to take encouragement from international outrage. If most nations were appalled by the invasion of Iraq, that was taken as confirmation that it was the right thing to do. To the extent that such people are aware of how foreigners see the U.S., they seem to take a perverse pleasure in foreign anger, as if it proves that that “we” are doing something right if “they” object to it. The thinking behind this is very much like domestic political tribalism on a larger scale: if it drives the Russians/Iranians/Chinese/Pakistanis/Europeans crazy, it must be worth supporting. That this is the opposite of the sensible response to significant international opposition goes without saying.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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