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The Missionary


During the past dozen years the image of Woodrow Wilson has undergone a remarkable transformation. The saintly idealist inspired by utopian visions of global brotherhood has been given a new identity as a crusading imperialist warrior. To the chagrin of his old liberal admirers and the applause of his new neoconservative celebrants, Wilson has been invoked as the patron saint of the Iraq war.

What has happened? Has Wilson been hijacked, his name cruelly taken in vain? Or did we misunderstand him all along? Liberals prefer to think that their Wilson, the prophet of a democratic peace through international cooperation, would never have sanctioned a unilateral war for resources, for “preemption,” or even for democracy. Is he not rightly celebrated as one of the most ardent advocates of internationalism, of a “community of power” to replace the balance of power, of a global parliament of nations to keep the peace?

Yes, but…Wilson’s internationalism was always of a special kind. For two and a half years he kept the US out of the European war until both sides were so weakened that he believed he could dictate the peace. And when he did instruct Congress to declare war on Germany in April 1917, he insisted that the US would have an absolutely free hand: it would not join the Entente as an ally but as an “associated power” with its own separate military command and political objectives. Even his plan for the League of Nations assumed that it would remodel the world on American lines.

Some hawks of the Iraq war are at least partly right. Woodrow Wilson, the quintessential liberal icon, was a very convincing imperialist crusader. It is sobering to reflect that for decades Wilson’s name has been invoked to sanctify virtually every military action that an American president has chosen to pursue, including the current war in Iraq. And considering that the US has been in a state of war in one place or another almost con-tinually since 1941, that is no mean accomplishment.

Woodrow Wilson today is rightly honored not as the prince of peace but as the inspiration for constructing the world according to American principles. If any one person can be said to exemplify both the idealism and the hubris of the American Century, it is Wilson. The galvanizing terrorist attack of 2001, just sixty years after the similarly galvanizing Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, has given him new relevance.

Wilsonian rhetoric has been widely invoked to justify America’s current global crusade. When George W. Bush declared that “liberty for the Iraqi people is a great moral cause,” and that the American war would inaugurate a drive to “bring the hope of democracy…to every corner of the world,” he was speaking in the language of Wilson. An editor of The New Republic said that such declared goals make Bush “the most Wilsonian president since Wilson himself,” and “the influence of Wilsonian ideals may be gleaned in everything from the administration’s plan to use Iraq as a pivot for democratizing the Arab world to its broader strategy of transforming rather than coexisting with totalitarian regimes.”1

The rhetorical link between Wilson and today’s neoconservative expansionists is not coincidental—any more than it was between Wilson and the architects of the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Wilson’s inspiring language, at once so flattering and so stirring, is a powerfully effective instrument for winning public support.

The war in Iraq has been described by its neoconservative enthusiasts as a Wilsonian war in that it vows to spread democracy throughout the Middle East and far beyond. This is appealing to many liberals as well, for it plays upon their eagerness to use American power for virtuous ends. In seeking these virtuous ends, they embrace questionable means.

Liberals and neoconservatives may both be correct in considering themselves to be Wilsonians. In truth they are more alike than they admit in their ideological ambitions and their moral justifications. But this should not be surprising, for some of today’s neoconservatives were yesterday’s liberals. In practice the difference between the interventionist liberals and the interventionist neoconservatives is more a matter of degree than of principle. It rests on how much exercise of military power the liberals will rationalize, and how much deference to liberal clichés the neoconservatives will tolerate.

In seeking justification for the use of military force, the word “democracy” is the mantra. When Wilson insisted that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” he was expressing not a hope but a mandate. For Wilsonians the democratic imperative is not negotiable. Like most other faiths, it is intolerant of every system other than itself. The paradox of democracy is that it can be intolerant in its absolutist demand for tolerance. It does not hesitate, whether under liberals or conservatives, to use military power to enforce surrender to its imperative. In this it is like other crusading monotheistic faiths. To be indifferent to the spread of American-style democracy is to be unpatriotic. To ask why the world must be made safe for democracy is a subversive question.

But Wilson, like Scripture, can be quoted for many uses. His pronouncements are so expansive as to make him a veritable ism unto himself. And the parts do not all neatly attach themselves to one another. Wilsonianism is a cloak that fits many sizes, shapes, and needs. Unilateral intervention? Certainly Wilsonian. Just ask the Mexicans, Haitians, Dominicans, and Nicaraguans to whom he sent the Marines, as he famously said, to “teach the South American republics to elect good men.” Also Wilsonian are self-determination, anticolonialism, free trade, internationalism, and globalization.

Yet war, too, can be Wilsonian, if for the right purposes, along with neocolonialism, nationalism, and even imperialism. Democracy, no matter how loosely defined, is of course just about always Wilsonian. This is true even when it comes in the garb of intervention and authoritarianism—as Reagan’s UN envoy Jeane Kirkpatrick erroneously maintained in her celebrated pre-1989 explanation of why right-wing dictatorships can evolve into democracies, but left-wing ones presumably never.

It might be deemed unfair to describe Wilsonianism as simply a pretext for a cynical imperialism that uses virtuous precepts as a moral cover for its endless expansion. Rather, Wilsonianism can be viewed as a bottomless cornucopia from which policymakers can snatch an idealistic justification, complete with inspiring rhetoric, for pursuing whatever strategy suits them. In this sense it is the quasi-theological counterpart of that other immensely useful, though totally indefinable, abstraction, the “national interest.”

In seeking to justify the policy of the day, whatever that might be, pol-iticians have found Wilson’s homilies immensely useful. Nixon often invoked “Wilsonian rhetoric to explain his goals while appealing to national interest to sustain his tactics,” Henry Kissinger informs us. “…In Nixon’s mind Wilsonianism and Realpolitik would merge.”2

They have merged for others as well. In his important study America’s Mission, the political scientist Tony Smith argues that Wilson’s emphasis on democracy rested not on woolly idealism but on “the conviction that American national interests could best be pursued by promoting democracy worldwide.”3 The theory behind this is that democracies tend not to launch aggressive wars—at least not against one another. Thus does Smith provocatively bring together two seemingly incompatible traditions: classical realism with its emphasis on power and liberal internationalism with its concern for democracy.

However interpreted, Wilson’s political genius, from which his successors have learned much, was to formulate a policy that corresponded perfectly with America’s strategic and political interests, and to phrase it in a vocabulary that made it seem idealistic and self-denying. In finding that the Lord blessed what self-interest dictated, this preacher’s son did not break new ground. But he set a high standard to which his predecessors are compared and his successors aspire.

What is required for a Wilsonian diplomacy is not merely the desire to reshape the world, but also a reasonable conviction that the US has the power to do so. Thus the Wilsonian impulse has ebbed and flowed in proportion to the belief of American leaders in their ability to mold events. Recently it has been flourishing, although that could change if the costs of the current military adventure in Iraq spiral out of control and the promised benefits prove illusory—as they did in Vietnam and are becoming in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq.

The first American blueprint for a “new world order” was that enunciated by Wilson in his Fourteen Points address of January 1918. There he laid out the principles of an American-designed peace to all the European belligerents, and followed it up at the Paris Peace Conference where he tried to impose it on America’s recalcitrant allies. Following Wilson’s failure the US withdrew into the excitement of the stock market boom, and then into the morning-after of the Great Depression.

It was not until the victory over Germany and Japan in 1945 that Americans dreamed once again of transforming the world. The half-century war with Soviet and Chinese communism provided the incentive, and the absence of any other serious rivals offered the opportunity. That long conflict, with its succession of overt and covert wars along the frontiers where the “free” and “Communist” worlds met, marked the period that has been labeled the American Century. It culminated on a note of triumphalism at communism’s collapse, and found its perfect expression in Francis Fukuyama’s premature celebration of the “end of history” and the eternal reign of democratic capitalism.

Now that we are back in history the Bush administration is engaged in the construction of another new world order. In this endeavor Wilson serves as a guiding inspiration. “Wilson’s intellectual victory proved more seminal than any political triumph could have been,” to cite again the ever-quotable Kissinger. “For, whenever America has faced the task of constructing a new world order, it has returned in one way or another to Woodrow Wilson’s precepts.”

Wilson’s sermons embraced the principles of self-determination, democracy, the Open Door (i.e., free trade), globalization, collective security, and a faith in progressive history leading to a better world. American presidents, each in their own fashion, regardless of their actual behavior, have all made obeisance to these precepts. They are part of our national ritual.

But they have not been without their critics. The historian Lloyd Ambrosius, in his stimulating collection of essays, Wilsonianism, argues that Wilson “failed to provide a realistic vision or legacy for the United States in world affairs.” In large part this was owing to Wilson’s conviction that his principles were universal, when in fact they were as parochial as those he opposed. “Equating Americanism with internationalism,” both Wilson and George W. Bush “championed a system of globalization under US leadership. But neither of them understood the backlash against it,” Ambrosius writes of the dangerous fallacy that connects Wilson to today’s neo-Wilsonians.

  1. 1

    Lawrence F. Kaplan, “Regime Change,” The New Republic, March 3, 2003, pp. 21–22.

  2. 2

    Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (Simon and Schuster, 1994), pp. 706–707.

  3. 3

    America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 1994), p. xv.

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