The End of the Wilsonian Century?

The End of the Wilsonian Century?

It was the failures and frustrations of a Wilsonian framework that helped lead to the Trump phenomenon in the first place.

Agitated by this spectacle, the liberal internationalist recommendation today is essentially to return to the liberal internationalist tradition. And to be sure, there are important and interesting debates going on among U.S. liberals and progressives over whether to lean in a hawkish or dovish foreign-policy direction. Issues of defense spending, military intervention, and the precise contours of counter-terror policy are very much in play. But virtually all prominent liberal and progressive voices, whether increasingly dovish or not, agree on the fundamentals of a Wilsonian foreign-policy framework. Today’s Wilsonians argue the United States must restore the sanctity of multilateral organizations, re-enter all agreements concluded by the Obama administration, prioritize human-rights promotion, abide by liberal rules, emphasize soft power, avoid unilateral action, and proceed to solve global problems by coordinating interstate compromises through global institutions.

And yet it was the failures and frustrations of a Wilsonian framework that helped lead to the Trump phenomenon in the first place.

Looking Ahead

A more persuasive case might be to distinguish those elements of America’s internationalist legacy that have been useful, from those that have not. On balance, American national interests have been well served by a U.S.-centered alliance system that deters major authoritarian adversaries and keeps them at bay. This alliance system involves an underlying U.S. forward presence to maintain regional balances of power. Some now promise that dismantling those military alliances would create no great danger to important U.S. interests. This seems highly unlikely. A comprehensive American disengagement overseas could very well encourage increased weapons of mass destruction proliferation, terrorist advances, authoritarian aggressions, and major power warfare. And the United States would inevitably be pulled back in, at even greater cost than before.

America’s alliance system—along with its supporting armed forces—also helps to buttress relatively open trading arrangements of mutual benefit to leading democracies. And those benefits are strategic as well as economic.

Having said that, there are numerous aspects of the Wilsonian foreign-policy tradition, strictly speaking, that really have proven to be dysfunctional. Some of these dysfunctional features have become increasingly obvious since the end of the Cold War. Others go back to Woodrow Wilson himself.

In other words, Henry Cabot Lodge had a point.

The Wilsonian mindset encourages the belief that the international system can be utterly transformed, from darkness into light, if only Americans bind themselves to a range of commitments that are universal, multilateral, and global. In reality however, for all the progress of the last century, the basic nature of international politics still shows some stubborn continuities with previous eras. Independent nation-states—whether democratic or not—still pursue their own particular interests, in the knowledge that no global institution will defend them with equal intensity. Nor are leading authoritarian nation-states interested to bind themselves under liberal rules. On the contrary, they look to see America bound, and themselves free to act however they see fit.

The Wilsonian mindset encourages the belief that multilateral institutions can act as a kind of silver bullet for every pressing international security challenge. But multilateral organizations, while sometimes useful, have no such magical power. The most pressing security challenges are not problems of legality. In many cases of utmost interest, multilateral institutions work at the perimeter of international power politics, not the center, and their claims are frequently unenforced. Nor is it clear why global organizations populated by numerous unelected dictatorships should lay claim to any superior morality over the sovereign decisions of free countries.


The Wilsonian mindset encourages the belief that the world’s nation-states are ultimately on track to converge around liberal democratic norms. It encourages the belief that democracy promotion is possible pretty much anywhere, if only we try. But the past twenty years have revealed otherwise. Major authoritarian regimes have survived and in some cases flourished. Numerous dictators have been toppled. Yet chaos has often followed. As it turns out, democracy promotion is extremely difficult, and in many notable cases, the circumstances on the ground are simply not propitious.

The Wilsonian mindset encourages the belief that American national sovereignty must constantly and necessarily be ceded to global multilateral arrangements. But it is perfectly reasonable for Americans to want to preserve their own independence, domestic institutions, national traditions, and particular way of life. Indeed democratic accountability demands that national self-government be preserved.


The Wilsonian mindset encourages the belief that there is no great difference between authoritarian nationalism and democratic versions. But there is all the difference in the world. The totalitarian powers of the twentieth century would not have been undermined and defeated without the power of democratic nationalism arising in the United States.

The Wilsonian mindset encourages the belief that almost every international interaction must be viewed as a test case of some universal liberal rule, to be articulated and—maybe—enforced. This makes it virtually impossible to weigh the costs and benefits of alternate U.S. strategies, case by case, in a sane and sensible fashion, with reference to the national interest. Indeed it appears intended to have this effect.

Finally, the Wilsonian mindset encourages the belief that U.S. armed forces can be cut, or permitted to atrophy, so long as Americans make a blizzard of multilateral treaty commitments supposedly rendering military power irrelevant.

The above mistaken assumptions, flowing from the Wilsonian mindset, are not simply conceptual failings. They are also practical ones, and have encouraged some very practical U.S. foreign-policy failures at times, most especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

All things considered, the end of the Wilsonian century—if that is what we are witnessing—need not represent the end of the world. It need not represent the end of democracy, since democracy and the hope for its promotion predate Woodrow Wilson. Nor need it represent the end of American alliances overseas. After all, Wilson hated what he called “special alliances.”

However, the end of the Wilsonian century can and should encourage a serious rethinking of traditional liberal assumptions regarding the nature of international politics in the coming years—and what sort of foreign policy should follow from that from an American point of view.

The recognition that world progress is not inevitable, and that historically normal patterns of international power politics have not ended, should lead to a certain long-term shift in U.S. foreign policy. The goal is not binding multilateral commitments for their own sake. Greater weight must be placed on simply working with America’s allies, and pushing back against obvious rivals and adversaries, within an internationally competitive environment.

The best response to current circumstances, in order to promote U.S. national security, is not to radically disengage. Nor is to think that America’s adversaries can be lectured into accommodation. Instead, the answer is for the United States to prepare for some steady, long-term competition with a number of serious international rivals, so as to better preserve existing democracies from a real variety of threats.

There is little point being half-hearted while protecting American primacy. But there is also no need to prioritize doctrines of regime change in most cases. The default preference for the United States should be regionally differentiated strategies of attrition, assertive containment, and peace through strength. Transformational global projects and promises from all directions must now be met with considerable skepticism. Today’s challenge is not to promote yet another Wilsonian vision, but rather to defend existing democracies. The United States is still much stronger than many believe. If it pursues tough-minded approaches, tapping into its profound capabilities, then it has the ability to outlast its adversaries and overcome them.

Colin Dueck is professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and a non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This article is drawn from his latest book, Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2019).

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