As a late entrant to the game of high-stakes statecraft, having expanded in size and influence in relative isolation, the United States has always had a peculiar approach to the world. It has been characterised most of all by a pervasive tendency to assume that other nations and other peoples see politics and security the same way that Americans do. But not surprisingly, that leads to a lot of misperceptions. Today, those misperceptions, propelled by the Trump administration’s eccentric approach to statecraft, are becoming increasingly dangerous as America’s margin for error in its foreign policy decreases. If left unchecked, these chronic misunderstandings may push the United States into an unintended crisis or conflict.
The roots of America’s tendency to misperceive the world lie deep in historical experience. Many Americans see the primary purpose of government as promoting individual liberty and economic opportunity. They assume that individual and national security are the natural condition, even though the state must sometimes act against those who threaten it, whether criminals or foreign enemies. Americans by and large believe that the best way to promote individual liberty and economic opportunity is by a limited government that is responsive to the will of the public, the rule by law, free enterprise and a free press scrutinising elected and appointed government officials. The global order, in turn, should operate on the same broad principles, according to this prevailing view—problems are best managed peacefully but can be addressed by sanctioned force, if necessary.
While the United States helped create the current international order after World War II and continues to play a major role in sustaining it, Americans generally believe that it serves the interest of all nations and all peoples. Those who oppose this status quo are “rogues,” “revisionist powers” or “nefarious actors” who must be managed, contained or defeated.
Not all nations and people, of course, share these perceptions and assumptions. In many places, governments do not serve the public interest writ large but are a means for whatever group controls the state—whether defined by ethnicity, sect, religion, race, regional origin or something else—to dominate the nation and control its resources. Such countries are prone to internal conflict as groups out of power struggle against their marginalisation or repression.
Regimes often become externally aggressive and tout the danger from foreign enemies as a way to delegitimise internal opposition and distract their populations from their repression and corruption.
While Americans bandy about the notion of existential threats, for many others, insecurity is not an abstract concept or something that happens far away. Dangers are near, whether from within or from neighbours, and all too real.
Many other nations also see the international order differently than the United States. Although most Americans recognise that they have a significant degree of influence over that order, they believe that they exercise national power to the benefit of all. American power, from this perspective, should be reassuring to all except rogues, revisionist powers and nefarious actors. But not everyone agrees. Some believe that the system was designed to keep them weak, and that all of the talk about world order and peaceful resolutions from Washington is simply a way to legitimise American dominance.
These clashing perceptions explain many of the security challenges the United States faces today. America has been unable to help Iraq and Afghanistan resolve their internal conflicts, despite years of US involvement, because of radically different perspectives on the basic purpose of governance. America has been unable to resolve the standoff with North Korea over its nuclear weapons because US political leaders fail to understand that Kim Jong Un does not want to make his nation more prosperous, unless doing so augments his hold on power. For Kim, it is better to be the absolute ruler of a poor nation than the ruler of a richer nation with limits on his personal power. And America has struggled to manage disagreements and conflicts with Russia, Iran and China, all of which believe that the current system of world order, designed in large part by the United States and maintained by American power, is inherently unjust. From their perspective, attempts to undercut it, are not “nefarious” but justified.
This dissonance has long hindered US foreign and security policy, but it’s getting worse. In part, that is because nations like China, Russia and Iran are learning to challenge American power in creative ways. But it is also because of the erosion of the partnerships that the United States used to maintain the international order.
That erosion began at the end of the Cold War amid political changes within partner nations. But it has accelerated under President Donald Trump, who treats security partnerships as the equivalent of lopsided business deals where one party gains more than the others. Trump disdains experienced diplomats and regional experts who understand how other nations, both friends and foes, see the world. Instead, he relies on partisan, sycophantic media to shape his view of the world.
Why does this matter? Because these misperceptions could lead the United States, frustrated in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, to misjudge the intentions, priorities and red lines of adversaries, thus stumbling into crisis, even conflict with the likes of Iran, North Korea and possibly China. With experienced diplomats relegated to the periphery of the Trump administration, only Congress could place a brake on such an escalation. But Congress currently seems hopelessly preoccupied, riven by hyper-partisanship and more focused on protecting or attacking Trump than on promoting America’s actual priorities.
#Crisis in the US
Dangerous misperceptions pushing America into disaster
May 24, 2019 — World Politics Review
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(October 28, 2018).