Woodrow Wilson's War

January 21, 2009 Topics: Society Regions: Americas Tags: Liberal internationalisminternational relations theory

Woodrow Wilson's War

Mini Teaser: George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was more consistent with the American tradition than many of his critics claimed, and some of his erstwhile supporters wished. The Wilsonians try to distance themselves from Bush, but they wind  up demonstr

by Author(s): Michael C. Desch

G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Tony Smith, The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 168 pp., $24.95.

George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower:  U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 1056 pp., $35.00.


ONE WOULD think that the discrediting of George W. Bush's Iraq policies would be manna from heaven for liberal internationalists, particularly on the heels of the election of a new Democratic president who won, in part, on a platform repudiating those policies. After eight years of a militarized and unilateralist foreign policy that dismissed the Kyoto Protocol and held in contempt the International Court of Justice, you would think that Bush's failure would allow them to turn the ship of state around 180 degrees and implement a new foreign policy. But rather than a sense of eager anticipation, there is instead the distinct scent of panic emanating from liberal-internationalist precincts. As G. John Ikenberry, the coauthor-along with Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Tony Smith-of a slim new volume soberly entitled The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century , admits, "The crisis of Bush foreign policy has become a crisis of liberal internationalism."

This candid admission in a book featuring three prominent liberal internationalists (Smith is a trenchant critic of that position) not only explains the sour mood among the philosophical heirs of Woodrow Wilson, but also represents something of a puzzle if we accept their repeated protestations-perhaps too much like the queen in Hamlet-that the liberal internationalism of America's twenty-eighth president is in no way implicated in the forty-third president's Iraq debacle.

And yet this proposition needs to be vigorously advanced, apparently, because prominent members of the Bush administration, including the president himself, have rationalized and defended their policies in decidedly Wilsonian terms. Even distinguished historians like Ronald Steel, David Kennedy and, most recently, George Herring in his magisterial new survey of American diplomatic history, From Colony to Superpower , implicate Wilsonian liberal internationalism to a greater or lesser extent in the calamity of the last eight years. Given that, it is not at all surprising that liberal internationalists would feel the need to take the Dubya out of Wilson.

Ikenberry begins his chapter with the key question: "Was George Bush the Heir of Woodrow Wilson?" He and Slaughter, concurrently a professor and the dean at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, answer a resounding no. So too does Knock, a diplomatic historian at Southern Methodist University who raised questions about his university becoming the home to the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Freedom Institute.

Collectively, they make two arguments: First, Wilsonian liberal internationalism can in no way be implicated in the Bush administration's unilateral efforts to topple dictators and plant the seed of democracy in their place. Ikenberry argues that Bush cynically invoked Wilsonian themes only when the original realpolitik rationales for the Iraq War turned out to be bogus. Second, they insist that Wilsonian liberal internationalism represents a dramatic and welcome departure from the policies of the last eight years and commend it to the new Obama administration.

Smith rejects both of these arguments. He argues that the link between Wilsonian liberal internationalism and the failed policies of the last eight years is clear and direct. As Herring's encyclopedic history shows, Wilson was part of the larger tradition of American liberal exceptionalism: the idea that America was uniquely virtuous due to its liberal-democratic political system. In From Colony to Superpower he recounts at length how, from the very beginning of the Republic through the Bush administration, this belief in exceptionalism has become, in political-scientist Jack Snyder's words, a potent "myth of empire." It does so, in my view, by overstating threats from nonliberal states and underestimating the difficulty of transforming the world in our image. [1] Given that, Smith's skepticism that Wilsonian liberal internationalism constitutes much of a break with the Bush administration's policies and his doubts that it represents a sound intellectual foundation upon which the new Obama administration should base its foreign policy are justified.


ONE MAJOR problem is the lack of clarity regarding what Wilson's legacy for contemporary liberal internationalism actually is. This murkiness is a function, in part, of Wilson's own style. As H. L. Mencken put it in "The Archangel Woodrow," a searing portrait of the late president's soaring rhetoric, "Reading [Wilson's] speeches in cold blood offer[s] a curious experience. It is difficult to believe that even idiots ever succumbed to such transparent contradictions, to such gaudy processions of mere counter-words, to so vast and obvious a nonsensicality." Even Wilson's ardent defenders in The Crisis of American Foreign Policy concede the "protean nature of Wilsonianism," which is fraught with "tensions and ambiguities." This debate about the central propositions of Wilsonianism is important because liberal internationalists derive different policy implications from it: promoting multilateral institutions and international law versus spreading democracy around the world. So, will the real Woodrow Wilson please stand up?

Essay Types: Book Review