The liberal internationalist tradition is credited with America’s greatest triumphs as a world power—and also its biggest failures. Beginning in the 1940s, imbued with the spirit of Woodrow Wilson’s efforts at the League of Nations to “make the world safe for democracy,” the United States steered a course in world affairs that would eventually win the Cold War. Yet in the 1990s, Wilsonianism turned imperialist, contributing directly to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the continued failures of American foreign policy. In Why Wilson Matters: The Origin of American Liberal Internationalism and Its Crisis Today, Tony Smith traces how Wilson’s thinking about America’s role in the world evolved in the years leading up to and during his presidency, and how the Wilsonian tradition went on to influence American foreign policy in the decades that followed. Smith recently took the time to answer questions about his book.
How does Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy (1913-1921) relate to today’s world?
TS: Wilson never articulated a grand strategy for the United States. Still, his two terms in office, and especially his design for the League of Nations, laid out concepts for how to “make the world safe for democracy” that came to life with the challenges Washington faced to win the peace after victory in World War II. The package of Wilson’s proposals for a system of world peace called for an alliance of democratic governments, working to promote an integrated international economic system, through multilateral agreements that included first and foremost collective security, all maintained under American leadership. What at first would be a Pax Americana would in time become a Pax Democratica. The result is what we call “Wilsonianism,” the American variant of liberal internationalism. We can distinguish a “preclassical” stage of liberal thinking that goes back to our Revolution, a “classic” period with Wilson, a “hegemonic” stage during the cold war, and an “imperialist” phase that began in the 1990s. This last stage is best called “neo-Wilsonianism.”
Was President George W. Bush the heir of the Wilsonian mantle in world affairs?
TS: Certainly the Bush Doctrine (defined as the National Security Strategy of the United States in September 2002) seemed to show continuity between Wilson’s thinking and that of the Bush administrations of 2001-2009. The key difference lay in the defensive character of classical and hegemonic American liberal internationalism and the offensive posture of neo-Wilsonian imperialism. The neo-Wilsonian belief that democracy was a “universal value” that had “universal appeal” such that the United States could embrace a “just war” doctrine that overthrew the Westphalian system of state sovereignty in terms of a “responsibility to protect” peoples everywhere from autocratic government would never for a moment have been entertained by Wilson. Wilson did not march on Mexico City in 1914, nor on Moscow or on Berlin in 1918. By the same coin, he would surely not have approved the attack on Baghdad in 2003, nor is there reason to think he would have celebrated the April Spring eight years later.
Why, then, is Wilson’s name so often associated with American imperialism?
TS: At the root of the problem is the failure to study Wilson’s political thinking about the origins and character of democratic government developed during the decades when he was one of this country’s leading social scientists, ideas he later followed as president. The result is that American liberal internationalism has lacked a clear identity to give it a compass in foreign relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. To call Wilson, as so many have, “a crusader,” “messianic,” and “utopian” is simply to misunderstand the prudent restraint he repeatedly showed in thinking that democratic government would quickly, easily, or indeed ever at all expand worldwide. Yes, he was “idealistic” and “moralistic” in thinking democracy was the best form of government for peoples capable of enjoying its blessings of liberty. But a utopian, and so an imperialist, he never was. Let’s call him a “realistic liberal.”
Why does all this matter?
TS: The American tradition of human rights and democracy promotion, like that which sponsors open economic relations, all in the name of making the world safe for democracy, has badly overplayed its hand. Its belief that our way was the only way led to a clash of civilizations the fruits of which we can see on every side, from the Muslim world, to China and Russia to economic inequality at home. The tragedy is that a way of thinking that did so much to establish the strength of the free market democracies between the early 1940s and the early 1990s should have been the source of its own undoing is an irony whose logic needs to be grasped. Here lies the explanation for how the greatest successes in the Republic’s history in foreign affairs—going from the creation of the Bretton Woods System to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, passing by occupation policies for Germany and Japan—should give way to a change in its course that would lead to the invasion of Iraq under Bush and the surge in Afghanistan and enthusiasm about the Arab Spring under Obama –policies which now constitute the greatest defeats in our country’s history in world affairs.
Is liberal imperialism related to the economic crisis that has best the world since 2007?
TS: Most certainly it is. To read the criticisms of Economics Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz is to see the logic of Wilson’s thinking applied to our day with the same concern from American power and American democracy being steadily eroded by what Wilson called “predatory” capitalism. He feared its machinations globally, and not only domestically. Wilson was right.
What can be done?
TS: Neo-Wilsonianism is now deeply embedded in American elite institutions. The neoconservative takeover of the Republican Party in the 1990s bears much of the blame for popularizing and militarizing the Wilsonian tradition. However, the neoliberal movement within the Democratic Party did most of the intellectual heavy-lifting in the development of this thinking, as can be seen from a review of the Obama years and the policies advanced by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. The international regulation of the capitalist world and the growth of a national security state simply have too much momentum behind them for us to have much confidence in a progressive future. That said, the faith of an earlier day returned under FDR with astonishing success and may yet be able to light the future before it is too late. Nation- and state-building that Washington likes to discuss so much with respect to our efforts to reform peoples abroad might better begin at home. From income inequality, to campaign finance reform, to prison conditions there should be quite enough here and with our democratic partners to keep us busy. “Physician, heal thyself.”
Tony Smith is Cornelia M. Jackson Professor emeritus of political science at Tufts University. The best know of his earliest work on American liberal internationalism is America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy (published by Princeton University Press in 1994 and again, in an expanded version, in 2012).