What Do W. and Woodrow Wilson Really Have in Common?

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Catsam teaches history at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is a writer for the History News Service and is a fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University.

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President Bush is presiding over what is fast becoming a foreign policy disaster. The war in Iraq is a quagmire. The Iraqi constitution faces an uncertain future. American policy appears to be based on sloganeering, but most of America's global problems can be attributed to another factor: the administration's failure to plan before it acted.

The failure is not unprecedented. Not since the end of the Cold War has an American president thought through what the international role of the United States should be. A continuance of this state of affairs will only further harm the country's standing in an increasingly dangerous world.

Pundits have compared Bush to Woodrow Wilson because of his championing of democracy. A less flattering, but more insightful, comparison would emphasize their shared lack of interest in foreign policy (at least initially) and a subsequent plunge into that arena after world-altering events -- the outbreak of World War I and the Sept. 11 attacks.

On the eve of his inauguration in 1913, Woodrow Wilson remarked, "It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign matters." This is not a surprising stance given that his chief experience in public life had been as a governor of New Jersey. His background best suited him for addressing important domestic issues in which he could infuse morality with the vital matters that he saw confronting his country.

Those traits also characterized George W. Bush in January 2001. In the 2000 presidential campaign Bush showed little inclination to discuss foreign affairs. He derided nation-building and could not identify some of the heads of states of countries with whom he would have to deal. He saw diplomacy as something to be endured. If ever a man seemed destined not to leave a mark on the United States' role in the world, President-elect Bush was that man.

Like Wilson before him, Bush cannot be blamed for expecting to concentrate on domestic issues. Where Wilson faced a Progressive impulse determined to change American life by using government as a force for good, Bush's America looked increasingly inward, concerned far more with divisive culture wars than with waging real ones. Both men reflected the era in which they took the helm of the ship of state.

But events from the outside world have a harsh and unremitting way of reminding Americans that they cannot remain isolated. For Wilson the specter of the Great War haunted his presidency. He won the 1916 election on the campaign promise that he had kept the United States out of war in Europe. German U-boat warfare helped carry the country into the conflict and forced Wilson into that irony of shifting his focus to foreign affairs. His idealism would drive much of liberal foreign policy for the remainder of his century.

For George W. Bush, the horrible events of 9/11 proved to be the unforeseen catalyst. The Sept. 11 attacks made Americans aware of just how much things had changed in the rest of the globe. And so President Bush had to belatedly set about developing a foreign policy. The irony of fate that befell the administration was that despite its initial disinclination to look outward, historical events forced the world into view again. Once again, events made a president, proving that presidents rarely make events.

American voters should insist that future candidates address what George H. W. Bush infamously called "the vision thing." A thorough understanding of American goals and the means to achieve them could then replace hasty reactions to disastrous events.

The United States should protect its interests while projecting liberal democratic values beyond its shores. A well-articulated American vision could combine the best aspects of two American traits sometimes at odds with one another: both hard-edged realism and noble idealism. It is in the American self-interest for democracy and human rights to flourish, but there are limits to what the United States can force upon the rest of the world.

Global terrorism is the greatest threat that the world faces, and the United States must be at the forefront of efforts to stop the scourge of targeting civilians for political gain. But fighting terrorism should not mean abdicating values nor should it become a cynical political cudgel used to stifle dissent. Unprepared, the United States is in danger of sacrificing its ideals while allowing the very real threat of terrorism to become just another political football.

Only a renewed commitment to a coherent foreign policy will save us from having to toss a policy together when events intervene. The failures of Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush have been costly. Presidential preferences for domestic concerns have left us exposed and unprepared in two critical moments in our history. We can't afford for it to happen again.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.