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?

Knock and Slaughter argue that at the heart of Wilsonianism is the promotion of international law and institutions. Knock quotes Senator J. William Fulbright to the effect that the late president's contribution was "the one great new idea of the [twentieth] century in the field of international relations, the idea of an international organization with permanent processes for the peaceful settlement of international disputes."

In contrast, both Ikenberry and Smith argue that the core tenet of Wilsonianism is the belief in the transformative effect of democracy on international relations. As Ikenberry puts it,

The entering intellectual wedge of Wilson's liberal vision was the conviction-felt most emphatically about Germany-that the internal characteristics of states are decisive in matters of war and peace. Autocratic and militarist states make war; democracies make peace. In retrospect, this is the cornerstone of Wilsonianism and, more generally, the liberal international tradition.

Smith concurs, explaining that "wherever democratic government appears, American security interests are likely to be served." In addition to democracy, Smith identifies three other pillars of Wilsonianism: free markets, multilateral institutions and American leadership. But he insists that democratization remains the heart of Wilsonianism because, for these multilateral organizations to work as Wilson hoped, their members all need to be democratic.

Because Smith rejects Slaughter's and Knock's claim that the theoretical heart of Wilsonianism is multilateralism and international law, he sees the Bush Doctrine, with its emphasis on regime change, as being a legitimate offshoot of liberal internationalism. In doing so, he traces the roots of what he calls "progressive imperialism" to three intellectual developments that preceded the Bush administration in the 1990s. These include the formulation of democratic-peace theory, which maintains that the spread of democracy will reduce war; the belief that the end of the cold war demonstrated that democracy could take root even in very inhospitable soil; and the international community's backing away from an absolute commitment to state sovereignty in international law in favor of a "duty to protect" individual citizens from abuses by their own governments.

Slaughter herself points to the link between the "duty to protect" and intervention to democratize a country. In her view, grave human-rights abuses indicate the lack of Madisonian checks and balances, the absence of which raises the prospect for even more dangerous behavior in the future. Contradicting her previous claim that the heart of Wilsonianism is multilateralism, she here characterizes the linking of a state's international behavior with the nature of its domestic regime as "a deeply Wilsonian claim." It turns out after all that democracy assumes a much-more central place in liberal internationalism than we were first led to believe. And if democracy is the key to making international institutions work, then efforts to promote democracy are the logical policy implication of Wilsonianism. In other words, given that domestic democracy and effective multilateral organizations and international law are inextricably linked in Wilsonianism, Bush's link to Wilson is not at all tenuous. Wilsonianism, in effect, provided the blueprint for overreaction.


THE SECOND problem for Wilson's defenders is that his actual behavior was more than a little embarrassing to their effort to separate him from George W. Bush. While Wilson himself may have suffered one momentary lapse in Mexico in 1914, they insist that the majority of his foreign policy was conducted in accord with that form of liberal internationalism we now refer to as "Wilsonianism."

They have, however, great difficulty explaining Wilson's unilateral use of military force to spread democracy in Latin America. Knock tries to claim that the 1914 Mexico intervention was an aberration by pointing to Wilson's scholarly writings, in which he concluded that democracy could not be imposed from the outside. "All in all . . . ," Knock concludes, "the professor who had set out ‘to teach the South American Republics to elect good men' ended up the wiser pupil."

Slaughter takes a slightly different tack, contrasting the early Wilson, who was willing to use military force to impose democracy, with the mature Wilson, who supposedly realized that spreading freedom could not be done from the outside and that U.S. leadership could not substitute for multilateral cooperation. As evidence, she quotes Wilson in 1914 arguing that:

Essay Types: Book Review