Wilsonianism: a very big tent

Woodrow Wilson haunts any discussion about American grand strategy.

But what does Wilsonian mean, exactly? Experts don’t agree. For David Kennedy, George Bush II with his muscular liberalism and stated goal to spread democracy and free markets, was Wilson on steroids. To Kennedy, Wilsonianism means an active internationalism, and a dynamic and revisionist one at that. A Wilsonian foreign policy is one of change, even revolution. On this view, the overthrow of dictatorships to install constitutional government and make the world safer for American democracy applied to Wilson’s war against the Kaiserreich in 1917-18, and to Saddam Hussein and the Taliban after 2002.

For others, Bush II spat on Wilson’s legacy. To these critics, Wilson stood for the League of Nations, and the ideal of collective security, international law and the enforcement of the status quo through supra-national institutions. Hawkish unilateralism, anticipatory self-defence and pre-emptive war would displease Wilson.

So we have two contrasting versions of Wilsonianism and the role it sets out for America: as revisionist crusader striving to alter the internal nature of other states and regimes; or as stabilising law enforcer, reassuring states that their sovereignty is protected.

As John Thompson points out in a recent article, both views have some basis in history. And that’s the trouble. Wilsonianism is a conflicted concept. At different times, Wilson articulated a vision of a world order secured by a new community of states who abandoned the traditional weapons of power competition, alliances and military buildup. At other times, especially during America’s belligerency and mobilisation in 1917-18, he argued that a peaceful world order depended on the removal of militarist regimes from power, such as in Berlin, and that peace could only rest on a bedrock that was democratic. This was Wilson the crusader, seeking the end of war in the twilight of the kings.

So the adjective ‘Wilsonian’ is the beginning, not the end, of analysis and taxonomy. Bush II resembled Wilson at war, but with his doctrine of overwhelming military supremacy and a willingness to flout international institutions, bore little resemblance to the Wilson who arrived in Paris to cheering crowds in 1919.

The argument about Wilson reflects the ongoing tension between competing goods, the status quo and change, stability and emancipation. Bush himself experienced this: in his second inaugural address, he invoked a classic Wilsonianism from world war one, that ‘the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on its survival in other lands.’

But soon after, his senior official told startled foreign envoys from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that the President didn’t mean it literally, and that his words did not signal a desire for imminent ‘regime change’ in their countries or a shift in US Foreign Policy.

Hence the paradox of Wilsonianism. That freedom, democracy and human rights abroad are essential for American security. Except when they aren’t.

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