#3 Judge Me Not For What I Did; But What I Said: Woodrow Wilson
One can just easily find foreign policy commentators who will pronounce Wilson the best foreign policy president of the 20th century and those who will call him the worst. The latter argument is tangibly the more persuasive. Wilson was a dangerous interventionist in Latin America and a dangerous utopian in Europe. He sent troops into Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Mexico; all efforts that Wilson convinced himself were intended to further democracy and not US interests. "I am going to teach the South American Republics to elect good men," he once said.
Wilson's willful blindness to the consequences of his foreign policy actions - and his apparent conviction that America's intentions were almost always pure - would define US involvement in World War I as well. Though it helped to end the war in Europe, Wilson was complicit in the disastrous Versailles peace deal. But his greatest failing was in losing the peace at home and failing to build public support for US entry into the League of Nations. The failure of the Senate to ratify the Treaty (aided and abetted by Wilson's stubborn and foolish refusal to negotiate over its terms) contributed to the anti-internationalist backlash that emerged after he left office.
Yet, Wilson's advocacy of self-determination and democracy has carried on. As Fareed Zakaria noted several years ago, "when someone argues in favor of human rights and democracy, advocates self-determination for minority populations or the dismantling of colonial empires, criticizes secret and duplicitous diplomacy, or supports international law and organizations, he is rightly called Wilsonian." The Wilsonian impulse in American foreign policy has both spoken to the "better angels" of the American spirit at the same time that it has led to overly ambitious policies far outside the capabilities and interests of the United States (case in point: George W Bush) - and has matched it with a dangerous and often misguided American exceptionalism. In some respects, one could argue that the rightness of Wilson's vision was matched only by the wrongness of the policies that has generally flowed from it. There is no question that Wilson's idea of America's role in the world has endured; it's far less clear that this has had a positive impact on US foreign policy.
#2 Speaking of Hopeful Idealists: Jimmy Carter
If any president speaks to the failures of Wilsonian foreign policy it would be Jimmy Carter. He came into an office with a focus on human rights but found that the intricacies of global politics don't necessarily allow for US presidents to so easily devalue American interests in the name of promoting national values. With the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, more disastrously with the Shah in Iran and in relations with the USSR, Carter tied himself in knots trying to uphold US interests all the while adhering to a human rights first agenda.** Like Wilson, Carter deserves credit for highlighting the importance of the issue after the excesses of Vietnam, but loses points for producing a foreign policy that was hopelessly muddled.
On the flip side, the Camp David Accords were a significant diplomatic achievement and one that strengthened the US position in the region vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. But the Carter Doctrine to protect the Persian Gulf was an under appreciated mistake that expanded the US security umbrella in the defense of . . . cheap oil. Finally, in the last year of his presidency Carter moved further to the right, expanded the defense budget, heated up the anti-Soviet rhetoric, partly in response to the invasion of Afghanistan but also with one eye on Election 1980 (Like so many of his predecessors Carter allowed politics to play a far too significant role in his foreign policy decision-making). As a result he helped to validate the more strident anti-Communism of his opponent, Ronald Reagan. Good intentions that turned out badly . . . one might even detect a pattern here.