Woodrow Wilson’s War

in The National Interest

by 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. 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:

“There are in my judgment no conceivable circumstances which would make it right for us to direct by force or by threat of force the internal processes of what is a profound revolution, a revolution as profound as that which occurred in France. All the world has been shocked ever since the time of that revolution in France that Europe should have undertaken to nullify what was done there, no matter what the excesses then committed.”

Both of these defenses of Wilson fall short when we consider the larger sweep of his career. The aberration argument fails inasmuch as Wilson’s intervention in Mexico was hardly unique. As Herring recounts, even before he became president, Wilson supported the Spanish-American War and the occupation of the Philippines on the grounds that they were likely to raise the level of “civilization” in these benighted places. And even though his first secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, proposed the Pan American Pact in 1913—the multilateral institution that would become the model for the League of Nations—Wilson nonetheless ignored it in 1914 when he went into Mexico alone. Finally, the notion that Wilson “learned his lesson” in Mexico is dubious given that Wilson continued to use force unilaterally in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Mexico, and pursued regime change, albeit multilaterally, in Bolshevik Russia.

The only way to make sense of Wilson’s behavior is to distinguish between cases where the United States was hegemonic and where it was not. In the Western Hemisphere, where the United States was preeminent, Wilson employed force unilaterally to effect regime change. In essence, he acted this way when he could. Conversely, in Europe, where the United States was not so predominant, Wilson opted for more multilateral approaches, and was much more circumspect in his goals. Wilson’s seemingly inconsistent behavior, which his contemporary acolytes have such difficulty reconciling with their preferred image of him, is, in fact, easily explained by variations in the power position of the United States, though this is not an explanation they are likely to embrace because it leads directly to the discomforting connection of Wilsonianism with our current conflict in the Land of the Two Rivers.

THE COMBINATION of Wilsonianism and hegemony is critical for understanding recent U.S. foreign policy, particularly the Iraq War. The defining feature of the post-cold-war world is the unparalleled power of the United States. As with Wilson in the Western Hemisphere, recent American presidents beginning with Bill Clinton took the helm of a global hegemonic power. That hegemony, in combination with the fact that a large segment of the American political elite embraces key features of Wilsonianism, led Washington to launch the Iraq War in response to the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

Understandably, the neo-Wilsonians are anxious to distance the master from the Iraq War. Knock denies that Wilson went

abroad in search of monsters to destroy in the manner in which the Bush administration has done, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people and inflicting mass destruction upon a modern state located in the center of the most volatile region in the world.

Slaughter, an early supporter of the war, curiously now rejects the notion that it could have been justified on humanitarian grounds, and echoes Ikenberry’s line that the Bush administration only embraced the Wilsonian rationale after their failure to find weapons of mass destruction or meaningful links to al-Qaeda.

In fact, Slaughter justifies her own early support of the war on liberal-internationalist grounds. She explains that:

Many strong supporters of the responsibility to protect, including me, saw Saddam Hussein through the lens of his horrific human rights violations, a view that in turn may have led us to be more willing to believe that he had nuclear or biological weapons without carefully scrutinizing the available evidence. We were wrong.

This admission, of course, actually highlights the link between Wilsonianism and overreaction to threats. And so it is unclear why, then, she thinks that this same thinking did not also color the Bush administration’s view of the nature of the threat from Iraq (lack of democracy made it more dangerous for them to acquire WMD) and point to the optimal solution to it (regime change).

Moreover, it is wrong to argue that liberal-internationalist considerations, such as protecting the Iraqi population from Saddam’s depredations or spreading democracy, were not part of the Bush administration’s original rationale for the war. President Bush confided to Washington Post–reporter Bob Woodward before the war that “as we think through Iraq, we may or may not attack. I have no idea, yet. But it will be for the objective of making the world more peaceful.” Likewise, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz explained to Vanity Fair on May 9, 2003, well before the war had gone south or the speciousness of the original public rationales was evident, that

the truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason, but there have always been three fundamental concerns. One is weapons of mass destruction, the second is support for terrorism, the third is the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people.

To be sure, the Bush administration played down the role of Wilsonianism in its public rationale for the war, but it was always there and was not something that was cooked up as a placeholder for the original security concerns. Indeed, the infamous Downing Street memo of the summer of 2002, which revealed that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” raises the opposite possibility: that WMD and links to al-Qaeda were added as rationales at the last minute, once the Bush administration had decided to go to war based on other grounds such as the imperative of regional transformation.

Undoubtedly, Wilson’s partisans are right to deny that there is a direct line between him and George W. Bush. But Smith is also correct to claim that Wilsonianism is nonetheless deeply implicated in the Iraq War. In addition to both exaggerating the threat from Saddam’s tin-pot dictatorship and underestimating the difficulty of replacing it with a democracy, the bridge between Wilsonianism and the Bush Doctrine is a historical development—the post-Holocaust expansion of international law to include “duty to protect.” This justified the violation of Iraqi sovereignty on human-rights grounds. A major part of the story of the Iraq War is the broad domestic support the Bush administration assembled, including many Democrats in Congress and in the chattering classes. Without question, the fact that this war could also be seen as a humanitarian operation contributed to the flock of liberal hawks who roosted with the Bush administration on the pro-war perch.

Smith makes the provocative claim that “to the extent that there was an organized caucus on foreign affairs within the Democratic Party, its members supported the terms of the Bush Doctrine as their own, modified only by their invocation of multilateralism.” This might seem counterintuitive at first glance, but it is entirely plausible. On two key elements of the Bush Doctrine—the imperative of the spread of democracy and the potentially benign role of U.S. hegemony—there was actually a fair amount of continuity between the Clinton and Bush administrations.

On the former, Wolfowitz points out that the Clinton administration embraced his recommendation to expand NATO that was contained in the controversial 1992 Defense Policy Guidance (DPG) he drafted for the first Bush administration. While the first Bush administration rejected Wolfowitz’s DPG, it was generally regarded as the intellectual foundation for the second Bush administration’s strategy. On the latter, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s famous characterization of the United States as “the indispensable nation” was widely interpreted abroad as indicating that the Clinton administration was taking up the mantle of global hegemon. In Smith’s view, the major difference between the Clinton and second Bush administrations “was therefore one of tactics, not strategy.”

DESPITE ESCHEWING “sterile debates” about who got us into Iraq in the first place, the gestalt ofThe Crisis of American Foreign Policy is nonetheless defensive. The beleaguered tone of the book reinforces Smith’s suspicions that, their repeated protests to the contrary, the link between Wilson and Bush is less tenuous than Wilson’s defenders would have us believe. And yet, the neo-Wilsonians try valiantly to cover Wilson’s keister, clinging to the life raft of multilateralism so tenaciously because it is all that separates them from the Bush administration’s disastrous war in Iraq. Though, even there, the differences are not so great. Wolfowitz assured Vanity Fair that “I’m not a unilateralist by any means. In fact, I don’t think you can get much done in this world if you do it alone.” In Iraq, the Bush administration at least tipped its hat toward multilateralism with its “coalition of the willing.”

Slaughter presents herself as the repentant hawk who, like Wilson, learned her lesson after the disastrous unilateral intervention into Iraq. Unfortunately, Wilson was a recidivist who, rather than consistently embracing multilateralism and international law after 1914, continued his unilateral interventions. And one suspects that given her support for the Clinton administration’s humanitarian interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, which even though conducted under the rubric of NATO were widely regarded in Europe as unilateral, Slaughter would not be averse to the Obama administration doing the same in Darfur, particularly if it were also conducted behind the fig leaf of an international organization.

OF COURSE, this debate is about more than just the historical questions of what constitutes Wilsonianism and whether it got us into Iraq. Equally pressing for all concerned is the policy question of whether Wilsonian liberal internationalism represents the best guide for American foreign policy under the new Obama administration. Wilson’s heirs clearly think that it does, and given the nomination of their paladin, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, it is likely that they will have a sympathetic ear in Foggy Bottom, even if they themselves don’t get offices there.

If they retain access to the new secretary, what will her policy look like? In a phrase, it will be Clinton redux. And given the continuities between Clinton I and Bush II, that means that there is also likely to be less difference between Bush II and Clinton II than many would expect. Slaughter recommends, for example, “maintaining a balance of power in favor of liberal democracies” that sounds a lot like Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy advocating “a balance of power that favors human freedom.” She also proposes a “Community of Democracies” that is reminiscent of the neoconservative pundit Robert Kagan’s “League of Democracies,” which Senator John McCain embraced in the 2008 campaign. Finally, Slaughter avers that despite the failures of the Bush administration, “American power [can still] be used for good in the world.” And Ikenberry assures us that this power will be used only for “enlightened and legitimate interventions.” To be sure, there will be more rhetorical commitment to multilateralism in the Obama presidency, but overall the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It is, of course, not a foregone conclusion that this neo-Wilsonian foreign policy will be President Obama’s foreign policy. Hopeful signs include the appointment of General James Jones as national-security adviser and the retention of Robert Gates as secretary of defense, both of whom seem less committed to Wilsonianism and more squarely planted in the realist tradition in American foreign policy. Nonetheless, the broad outlines of the debate in the Obama administration are becoming clear.

Moreover, despite Bush’s channeling of Wilson, which led to failure in Iraq, it would not be prudent to bet that the twenty-eighth president’s ghost has been exorcised completely. As Herring reminds us, “Wilson towers above the landscape of modern American foreign policy like no other individual, the dominant personality, the seminal figure.” It will therefore be a real challenge for Americans to “‘disenthrall’ themselves, to borrow Lincoln’s apt word, from deeply entrenched ideas about their country and its place in the world,” as Herring wisely advises. Wilson’s heirs in both political parties will continue to shape American foreign policy for years to come.

Michael C. Desch is a professor of political science and fellow of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Power and Military Effectiveness: The Fallacy of Democratic Triumphalism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

[1] See my “America’s Liberal Illiberalism: The Ideological Origins of Overreaction in U.S. Foreign Policy,” International Security Vol. 32, No. 3 (Winter 2007/2008), 7–43.

[2] Mark Danner, “The Secret Way to War,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 52, No.10 (June 9, 2005): at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18034


1 Comment

  1. M. Silva said,

    With or Against? Humanitarian Agencies and Coalition Counter-Insurgency http://www.upf.edu/iuhjvv/_pdf/arrels/dossier/duffield/duffield3.pdf by Hugo Slim

    “(…) ICRC has a vision of a better war but they do not have a vision of the good society, either nationally or globally.This makes them very different from Care, Oxfam,Action Contre Le Faim, Caritas, IRC, Save the Children, UNICEF, UNDP and many others.

    (…) Many NGOs – and by no means only those headquartered in Europe and North America – and all UN institutions hold dear the values of liberal democracy. This means they usually believe in the following vision of the good society: equal rights for men and women; freedom of religion; fair market economics; democracy and freedom of expression; education for girls and boys; healthcare for all and a sustainable approach to the earth’s resources.

    (…) Perhaps many liberal agency people feel very uncomfortable – even strangely ashamed – to find they believe so much of the same political philosophy as powerful people whom they do not intuitively like and whose methods they regard as abusive.

    The radical response from many humanitarian and development ideologues and activists to the horror of finding a militaristic America and Britain talking the same liberal language of rights and freedom is to dispute Coalition integrity.

    (…) Coalition ideologues do not really mean what they say and have simply co-opted and contorted liberal values and meaning to suit their own realist ends. In other
    words, Coalition liberals are fakes.

    (…) This tussle within liberalism appears to be almost as antagonistic as the confrontation between liberalism and radical Islamist ideology. In my experience, more NGO and UN agency energy is spent discussing the threats posed by the ‘war on terror’ than the threat of Islamist ideology and terrorism itself.This conflict within liberalism presumably stems from the very healthy liberal ambivalence about power of any kind and a justified horror of liberal aggression which has killed, and can kill, to an extraordinary degree.

    (…) There is, therefore, often considerable moral overlap of ends between insurgents, counter-insurgents, humanitarian, human rights and development agencies.

    (…) Michael Moore may wish to characterize the Bush administration as such a clique but, in reality, the state-building effort of Coalition governments in Iraq and Afghanistan is about the pursuit of liberalism and not just enrichment.

    (…) Degrading political motive in this way is doubly patronizing. First, it assumes that states and people do not go to war to secure good things, so that by definition ‘war aims’ are always dodgy. Secondly, it self-righteously suggests that of all three groups – insurgents, counter-insurgents and humanitarians – only humanitarians have purity in their pursuit of public goods.

    (…) most secular liberal agencies that travel the world to help those suffering in war-torn societies are not simply humanitarian agencies.

    (…) a da’wa to liberalism. These proselytising liberal agencies are, of course, like many of their counterpart agencies in the Islamic world. Most Islamic charities also tend to be multi-mandate.They may do humanitarian work in extreme situations but their vision of the good society is a wider and distinctly Islamic one around education, health, livelihood, politics and pietism.

    (…) One of the particular problems for many liberal agency staff who come from the USA, Britain and other Coalition countries is that in Iraq and Afghanistan it is our own people and governments who are the belligerents and sometimes the human rights abusers.To an activist liberal sensibility it is somehow even more outrageous when
    ‘our people’ do this than when others do it.

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