Home/Daniel Larison/Why It’s in the American Interest to Understand Other Nations’ Views

Why It’s in the American Interest to Understand Other Nations’ Views

Paul Pillar states an undeniable truth:

There is a moral deficit in the way much American discussion of foreign policy fails to take account of the perspectives and interests of foreigners that U.S. policy affects.

There are many reasons why it is foolish and wrong to ignore foreign interests and perspectives, and many of them are self-interested ones as Pillar goes on to explain, but perhaps the most straightforward practical reason is that it hopelessly warps our expectations about how other nations will react to U.S. policies, especially when those policies are coercive. That in turn distorts everything in the debates over how the U.S. should act toward specific nations. For example, economic sanctions advocates usually take it for granted that imposing hardship on the civilian population of a country will create political and economic pressure on the regime to make concessions on a disputed issue. Sanctions advocates also tend to believe that economic sanctions will turn a population against its government and make the government’s position on the disputed issue less popular. In virtually every case, this doesn’t happen, and in some cases the exact opposite happens.

As we see in the Iranian case, the regime hasn’t felt obliged to make significant concessions, the population hasn’t turned on the government on this issue, most Iranians understandablu blame the foreign governments responsible for the sanctions for their hardship, and most Iranians don’t oppose the government’s position on the nuclear issue. There’s no mystery as to why this is. If sanctions advocates paid any serious attention to Iranian public opinion, they wouldn’t expect sanctions to have the desired political effect. If they made the simple effort of imagining how they would react if they were Iranians, they would easily recognize how counter-productive and useless such a cruel sanctions regime would be. That doesn’t even have to take into account factors of nationalism or the country’s history of being abused by great powers in the past. Once those factors are included, it makes no sense to expect that sanctions would force the Iranian government to yield on such a high-profile, popular issue.

Failing to take foreign perspectives into account helps to explain why many American politicians and pundits have experienced so much confusion and surprise in recent decades. If Bush administration officials genuinely expected all Iraqis to greet the invasion with open arms, this was a result of ignoring the interests and views of all those Iraqis that stood to lose from regime change. It was a case of substituting their own perception of what the war was (a war of liberation) for how it would inevitably be perceived by the people suffering from its effects (as an unwarranted attack and occupation). The general American attitude on Russian opposition to recognition of Kosovo and NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia was that Russian objections weren’t important and could be dismissed, which left most American policymakers blind to the likely consequences these actions would have in the Caucasus.

During the Green movement protests, many American pundits and politicians projected their goals of regime change onto the movement and ignored what most of the protesters were actually seeking, which has led to four years’ worth of inane hawkish complaints that the U.S. “missed” its chance to overthrow the Iranian government. The frequency with which American pundits and politicians treat unrepresentative foreign political movements as expressions of what entire nations want is so well-known and obvious that it hardly needs to be mentioned again. Even when there is a pretense of paying attention to foreign perspectives, it is usually done in such a way that the views of the actual majority of people living in a given country are overlooked or dismissed.

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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