Blogs > Liberty and Power > Channeling Woodrow Wilson

Jan 20, 2005 9:07 am

Channeling Woodrow Wilson

Back on November 21, 2004, on ABC News'"This Week with George Stephanopoulos," conservative columnist George Will called President Bush"one of Woodrow Wilson's many, rather dangerous, reverberations." (I too have discussed the Wilsonian legacy in many previous essays; see here, here, here, here (scroll down), and here (scroll down).) And on January 9, 2005, Will observed further that the"Old Right" isolationists were against America's involvement with the rest of the world because they felt America was"too good" for the world. The"New Left isolationists," by contrast, said Will, don't want America to be involved with the rest of the world because they feel the world is too good for America—for racist, imperialist America.

Well, if snippets from the President's Second Inaugural address are any indication of his wider message, one might say that he's trying to create a transcending neo-Wilsonian internationalist answer to these opposed isolationist views. For George W. Bush, America's involvement with the rest of the world is necessary because America is too good; only America can lead the way to a new world of freedom.

"Good Morning America" host Diane Sawyer has an advance copy of the President's speech—and Bush is channeling Woodrow Wilson like never before:

The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

In other words, the US is still fighting to make the world safe for liberal democracy. Or so its leaders say.

Given the interconnectedness of global events, it is surely the case that a world of liberty can greatly enrich our domestic experience of it. But if the US plans to be a"nation-building" crusader for the imposition of universal liberal values on foreign cultures—with no appreciation for the specific conditions such cultures face—that"nation-building" enterprise will be DOA. And since foreign policy and domestic policy are inextricably connected, the long-term consequences of such folly on domestic freedom have not been fully calculated by this President or his administration.

Now, it is true that there are potentially lethal consequences for freedom if there is another attack on American soil. Even modern-day liberal New Republic editor Peter Beinart has argued that, given the potential anti-liberal consequences of another strike on US soil, the war against fanatical Islamic fundamentalists is a necessary one. But how that war is fought—what is prudent and what isn't—remains the crucial strategic question. Especially if the answer is Freedom.

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Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 1/24/2005

Roderick, that is really interesting... because both Rothbard-Radosh and Atlas inspired my interest in the topic of "Government and the Railroads During World War I," which, incidentally, was my first essay to ever appear in a professional scholarly journal, 25 years ago. Oh my.

Roderick T. Long - 1/23/2005

Incidentally, after reading the account of Wilson's domestic railroads policy in the Rothbard-Radosh anthology A New History of Leviathan, I'm convinced that Wilson's policies were the model for the description of the government-imposed cartelization of the railroads in Atlas Shrugged.

Andre Zantonavitch - 1/22/2005

William Stepp's points about Woodrow Wilson seem very well informed and simply ~devastating~. And Chris must rather ~despair~ at having to repeat his solid, historically-based arguments ad nauseum (even to me!). I find both their lines of thought highly persuasive.

And yet I don't.

Chris might have been better off ~skipping~ wading thru last month's ARI foreign policy potboiler. He reviewed the ham-handed, second-handed, collectivist "thought" of cult deviant jackass Peter Schwartz when he ~could~ have reviewed/refuted Natan Sharansky's current book 'The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.'

This ex-Soviet dissident and current Israeli politician claims ~all~ nations and countries want freedom and ~all~ can sustain it. He also says liberty in Arabia, etc. is central to security in America -- which rather amazingly echoes Bush two days ago. Sharansky also says "accomodation" of the USSR propped it and "confrontation" by Reagan defeated it [p.11]. And he tells us not to be so damn arrogant as to suppose only Westerners truly like/understand liberty.

Sharansky cites Tony Blair's speech to Congress in 2003 where he claims "There is a myth that tho' we love freedom, others don't." Blair goes on to advocate "universal values" (mainly freedom) for all -- which echoes Gorbachev's identical phrase and maybe meaning.

If anyone knows about and promotes REAL liberal values/policies, in my view, this will surely win. Even 95% Archimedean style. Teaching by example is too slow. Pointing guns at the heads of tyrants vastly or moderately speeds the liberal process. The only problem here is that the old communist and current neo-con "liberationists" had/have badly flawed ideals and tactics.

So maybe we ~are~ all better off doing nothing. But why assume permanent high stupidity and depravity in all liberators?

By the way, Bush's "statement" speech was half great, and shows America to be a heroic nation.

In the end, Western liberalism probably ~is~ winning in Iraq despite gross and laughable US incompetence so far. The Iraqis think so. ~Next~ time maybe we'll: not appoint commies and jihadis to the temporary government, hold elections ten times more and quicker, hire local security guards and police at $100/month vs. US troops at $10,000/month, vastly loosen the rules of engagement, control the borders, speak Arabic, learn policing, learn the culture, and any number of ~other~ things which devolve from even primitive rationality and common sense, and which hardly seem utopian.

Even with ~everything~ going wrong and being done wrong, the neo-con Wilsonian idealists are winning slightly in Iraq and worldwide. And next time we and our bozo leaders will do even better.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 1/21/2005

Thanks for the comments, folks.

A few points in response:

1. Andre, you're right that a freedom-loving world needs idealists. But such idealists must still anchor their ideals in reality. The moment idealists cut themselves off from the "reality-based community," so-to-speak, they become Utopians. I devoted a trilogy of books to an attempt to distinguish between utopian and genuinely radical thinking. I won't revisit that issue here. Suffice it to say: Neo-Wilsonian idealists want to remake the world as if from an Archimedean standpoint. They will not translate their ideals into reality. To that extent, we might as well call them neo-Trotskyite idealists. Such "idealists" are all going to run-up against realities that they are unable to control.

2. Jason, I wrote my comments prior to Bush's speech. You're right that in his speech, he did make a reference to not imposing an American model on foreign cultures. I suspect that this was a bow to those who argue that the US is "imposing" its will on other countries. So, in reply to those critics, Bush said:

This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.

Well, that's not a bad way of putting it. I do believe that it is an inescapable fact that free institutions will bear the mark of the historical and cultural conditions from which they emerge. But that doesn't require any obfuscation of the definition of "free" institutions---and that is precisely what is likely to happen in any US-guided attempts to craft a free world, given that the current U.S. politico-economic system is bathed in pragmatism and compromise. These are hard systemic realities that will not change unless the system itself is changed. Such change would have revolutionary consequences for both domestic and foreign policy.

In the meanwhile, I will be very interested to see what "America" will do should Iraq decide that "freedom" is compatible with a Shi'ite theocracy. The President said, after all, that "Liberty will come to those who love it." Amen. But I do not believe that love of theocracy is compatible with love of liberty.

There is a ton of skepticism in conservative circles, thank God. Bush---who once criticized internationalists---has become one... to the grief of some of his conservative supporters. See this post by Arthur Silber, for example.

But make no mistake about it. The motivating ideology here is utopian and constructivist---and it is likely to generate dystopian consequences as it slams up against the reality of system. I said it before, and I'll say it again:

The Bush administration has thus become a focal point for the constellation of two crucial impulses in American politics that seek to remake the world: pietism and neoconservatism. The neocons, who come from a variety of religious backgrounds, trace their intellectual lineage to social democrats and Trotskyites, those who adopted the "God-builder" belief, prevalent in Russian Marxist and Silver Age millennial thought, that a perfect (socialist) society could be constructed as if from an Archimedean standpoint. The neocons may have repudiated Trotsky’s socialism, but they have simply adopted his constructivism to the project of building democratic nation-states among other groups of warring fundamentalists­--in the Middle East.

William J. Stepp - 1/21/2005

Idealism is grand, but intervening all over the globe to promote it undermines the liberties supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution.
As for a Stevenson presidency being more socialistic than Ike's was, I have my doubts. Ike said that his two biggest mistakes sat on the Supreme Court.
Maybe they were, if you ignore his horrendous foreign policy (Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam and some other interventions) and his domestic socialism, including sending federal troops into Little Rock.
Did he take a lesson from Comrade Stalin?

Jason Pappas - 1/21/2005

It looks like there is skepticism at National Review, too:

One odd thing, Chris. You mentioned Bush wanted to promote “liberal democracy.” But in his speech, he added he wanted to promote freedom as determined by the local cultures (I don't have the exact words at hand). So, if some culture decides that, as Hegel says, “freedom is obedience to the state,” we’ll help them achieve that.

I think Andre is mistaken. This isn’t idealism; this is prostitution.

Andre Zantonavitch - 1/21/2005

At some point idealism is important. Vast and abiding cynicism isn't the answer. Nor infinite caution and passivity. No doubt Jimmy Carter did much the same as Wilson. And if Adlai Stevenson had defeated Ike, America would probably be a much more socialist place today. So what? At some point idealistic, noble, and virtuous people aren't evil -- their ideals are. A freedom-loving world ~needs~ its Wilsonian idealists.

William J. Stepp - 1/20/2005

Wilson's contributions were truly legion. In addition to the domestic interventions, which Chris mentions in his various posts, ranging from the Fed to the income tax to the FTC to the twelve Federal Land banks (subsidized loans to farmers) to the de facto nationalization of the railroads under the dictator McAdoo, there was the European War, which Wilson turned into a world war. According to Ivan Eland's recent book on the Empire, Wilson's insistence that the Kaiser be dethroned removed the only check on the rise of a dictator in Germany. American intervention also weakened the Kerensky provisional government, this making it easier for the Bolshevik's to take power in Russia. So Wilson, in addition to making the Great War far bigger, was indirectly responsible for the Hitler dictatorship and the Soviet dictatorship, and therefore for WW II.
The War Industries Board was the forerunner of the RFC and there were many other war-related interventions such as the Shipping Board and the Emergency Fleet Corporation. So Wilson paved the way for the New Deal as well.
His civil liberties record was horrendous, as evidenced by the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act of 1918.
Not bad for a professor from Princeton!

After eight years of Wilsonian crusading and uplifting, is it any wonder that the Republican Harding won the 1920 election with about 16 million votes to the 9 million received by his fellow Ohio newspaper editor James Cox?
Eugene Debs, who Wilson threw into prison for violating the Sedition Act, garnered over 900,000 votes as the socialist presidential candidate, and was later released by Harding.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his new book "Blink," follows the long-standing tradition of dissing Harding, calling him an "empty suit." Considering the record, I'll take Warren over Woodrow any time. By ignoring Harding's actual record, Gladwell has thin sliced this one a bit too thinly.

When Harding played poker
No one got broker.