David M. Kennedy: Bush's Witless Betrayal of Woodrow Wilson

Roundup: Historians' Take

David Kennedy, in the Mercury News (Sept. 26, 2004):

``What are we going to do with the influence and power of this great nation?'' Woodrow Wilson asked at Philadelphia's Independence Hall on the Fourth of July, 1914. Both the setting and the date underscored the urgency of his question. ``Are we going to play the old role of using that power for our aggrandizement and material benefit only?'' Or, he asked, was it America's historical mission to fulfill the dream of its founders by going beyond building democracy at home and taking on the task of revolutionizing international life as well?

The founding generation, struggling to defend the fledgling republic's independence, could not plausibly have hoped to realize that larger dream in their own lifetimes, but they repeatedly pointed to the far horizon of their ambitions.

When Benjamin Franklin as commissioner to France spurned the powdered wigs and foppish finery of court dress in favor of a fur cap and homespun garments, he was vividly signaling his upstart nation's intention to repudiate traditional diplomatic practices. As John Adams put it in 1776, ``The business of America with Europe was commerce, not politics or war.'' That was a truly radical idea, but one with enormous implications for the future.

As Wilson sought to answer the questions he posed at Independence Hall on the eve of World War I, he looked to the founders' example. What he came up with was a revolutionary philosophy of international relations that has guided U.S. foreign policy ever since -- until now.

President Bush today claims to be pursuing the hallowed Wilsonian goal of making the world safe for democracy. But the president and his neoconservative brain trust have witlessly jettisoned Wilson's means even as they piously invoke Wilson's ends. The essence of Wilson's approach was the careful, laborious toil of building international institutions, agreements and partnerships step by careful step. He didn't expect to create a better world by flaunting America's military might or naively attempting to export democracy, but instead by patiently cultivating ties of trust, mutual interest and reciprocity.

The Bush administration's path to war in Iraq is but the most dramatic example of a set of policies that has put at risk the kind of international leadership that has served both America and the world so well for the past half-century. The policies of the past four years have made America and the world less safe, not more....

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