Why Bush Never Should Have Been Considered Wilson's Successor

News Abroad

Mr. Manela is Dunwalke Associate Professor of American History at Harvard University. He is the author of The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (2007)

Ninety years ago this summer the first American troops under General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing landed on European shores. The United States had been at war with Germany since April. The war, President Woodrow Wilson famously said, was being fought to “make the world safe for democracy.” On the Fourth of July that year, street posters declared, “For Freedom Then, For Freedom Now!”
The rhetoric of that era seems to have come back with a vengeance in recent years. American forces once again crossed the Atlantic to fight a war, and the president claimed that their aim was to spread freedom and democracy abroad. Many commentators, both supporters and opponents of the Iraq war, have identified this ideology, the zeal for spreading democracy at gun point, as Wilsonian. The nation’s twenty-eighth president, they suggested, set the agenda that its forty-third was now taking up.
They are wrong. Wilson was never much interested in spreading democracy by force, nor did he think it possible to do so. If you think about it, nothing about this famous call to “make the world safe for democracy” implied the need to impose democracy in places where it did not already exist. Rather, it was a call to defend democracy where it already existed against the threat of expanding autocracy, represented for Wilson by the imperial German government.
But how could it be done? On this point Wilson was clear. The way to promote democracy, he said, was for democracies to band together to build institutions that would advance international cooperation. When his opponents argued that this would compromise U.S. sovereignty and that the United States was strong enough to go it alone, Wilson would have none of it. “Only those who are ignorant of the world,” he said, “can believe that any nation, even so great a nation as the United States, can stand alone and play a single part in the history of mankind.”
It was the League of Nations, rather than any notion about “spreading democracy,” that was the centerpiece of Wilson’s peace plan. And not just any League of Nations. We often forget now that many Republicans at the time also supported a league, as did some European leaders. But they saw the league as an exclusive club of great powers, to allow them to work together while continuing to assert their supremacy in the international system. They had little use for Wilson’s version of the league, in which weaker nations were to have a voice.
This inclusiveness is precisely what made Wilson’s ideas so attractive to people around the globe. In late 1918 and early 1919, Wilson was a popular hero not only in the United States and Europe but also—though this is little remembered today—many parts of Asia and Africa. From China to India to Egypt, thousands of people came out into the streets when the armistice was announced in November 1918 to cheer for Wilson. Chinese leaders compared him to Confucius, an Indian intellectual hailed him as the second coming of Buddha or Christ, and Egyptians wrote him effusive letters glowing with praise.
There was just one problem. For all his rhetoric about the right to self-determination, Wilson's vision had a blind spot. In theory, he did not deny that non-European peoples were entitled to this right, but in practice he simply could not imagine non-whites as his equals. So though he fought in Paris to reform imperialism through the mandate system, he showed little inclination to give non-whites the full equality they wanted. When it became clear, in the course of the peace negotiations, that the application of self-determination would be largely limited to Europe, the disillusionment that followed helped ignite a series of upheavals across Asia and the Middle East. The disappointment with the limits of Wilson’s commitment to his own ideals opened the door for more radical ideologies that promised to destroy imperialism and give non-white peoples a place in international affairs.
So what are the lessons of the rise and fall of this “Wilsonian moment” for U.S. foreign policy today? First, as Wilson himself had emphasized, that any effort to promote American values abroad must include support for international cooperation and multilateral institutions. This will hardly guarantee success, but without it any attempt to spread liberal values is surely doomed, as recent experience in Iraq shows. This relationship was well understood by US leaders in the aftermath of World War II, often cited as the shining example of America’s success in spreading its ideals. It is no accident that the projects to build democracy in Germany and Japan coincided with the highpoint of American support for international institutions.
But there is also another lesson, no less important. If the United States is to succeed in advancing democracy, its leaders must not only adopt Wilson’s virtues but also avoid his vices. This means taking seriously the role in the international arena of the nations of the “global south,” where many still resent their marginalization, both past and present, in international society. In his best moments, Woodrow Wilson almost seemed to see this, as when he said, on the Fourth of July 1918, that the United States was fighting the war on behalf of “peoples of many races and in every part of the world.” Wilson himself failed to make good on his promise. But it is not too late.

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Joseph Fein - 4/11/2008

Back in 1991, when I was a Democrat, I remember protesting President George H.W. Bush because he was not expanding the Democratic franchise into the Middle East.

12 years later, I am not a Democrat, but they are still protesting. Why? I thought, as per Eleanor Roosevelt's creation of Freedom House, Freedom belongs to all people.

Unfortunatley, hatred (yes, hatred) of our current President means that even if the goal is pure (Spread Democracy), it is always under question.

Wilson, was considered a racist in today's society, is forgiven because he is a Democrat. Senator Byrd (D-WV) has questonable past connections but because he is a Democrat, they are forgiven.

Spreading Democracy is a good idea. I haven't heard anything better since 2001. If the Democrats have another theory, I haven't heard it.

And back in the late 19th and early 20th Century, no one thought Europe was ready for Demacrocy either. I guess deocrats do not believe in spreading the franchise unless a Democratic President is at the helm.