George W. Bush's 2002 National Security Strategy proclaimed a new American right to wage preventive war. Following the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001, Bush declared, it was simply too risky not to act pre-emptively. Whatever the merits, this doctrine is a radical departure for American diplomacy. At Concord Bridge, Fort Sumter, and Pearl Harbor it was America's adversaries who fired the first shot.
Many critics have berated Bush, accusing him of jettisoning two centuries of tradition and abandoning the high ground from which Americans have historically waged war with stouthearted moral confidence. But although this criticism is valid in many ways, Bush's approach also reaffirms what may well be America's only consistent tradition in foreign policy.
"These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society," the National Security Strategy declares. It dedicates the United States to the task of bringing "the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade" to "every corner of the world." Those idealistic—some would say hubristic—words uncannily echo Woodrow Wilson's heady rationale for American participation in World War I. Wilson would recognize George W. Bush as his natural successor, and he would recognize today's Americans as the direct spiritual descendants of the people he so reluctantly led into that conflict. For Wilson did not think that what came to be known, and often derided, as "Wilsonianism" was just a policy selected from a palette of possible choices. Rather, he saw it as the sole approach to international relations that his countrymen would embrace as consistent with their past and their principles. Wilson did not so much invent American foreign policy as discover it.
As in 2004, the world a century ago was reaching the end of a long peace. The structures that had allowed Europe to avoid war for much of the nineteenth century were visibly crumbling. Everywhere nations jockeyed for advantage and eyed their neighbors nervously. In the closing years of the nineteenth century Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy, and Belgium colonized enormous chunks of Southeast Asia and virtually all of Africa. Japan annexed Okinawa in 1879, Taiwan in 1895, and Korea in 1910. Even the United States, though born in a war against empire, became an imperial power at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, in 1898.
The war against Spain announced America's debut on the stage of world affairs. The United States had grown to maturity in a uniquely isolated and secure environment. Shielded by two oceans, with no powerful neighbors to fear, it had been undistractedly absorbed for more than a century in the great project of consolidating its own continental domain. Those peculiar historical circumstances had bred stubborn habits of mind, including the cherished belief that the United States could choose whether, when, and how to participate in the world.
That America now wielded immense potential power was indisputable. But by what principles should it be guided? As President Wilson asked in a Fourth of July address in 1914, "What are we going to do with the influence and power of this great nation? Are we going to play the old role of using that power for our aggrandizement and material benefit only?" Just six days earlier, in the faraway Balkan city of Sarajevo, two rounds from an assassin's pistol had felled Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie. Those shots set in motion a train of events that would urgently compel Wilson and his countrymen to come up with an answer.
The Chicago Herald demonstrated the stubborn vigor of the old-time isolationist religion in 1914, when it greeted the outbreak of the European war with "a hearty vote of thanks to Columbus for having discovered America." Theodore Roosevelt, on the other hand, believed that the opportunities and threats of the new century, as dramatically exposed by the outbreak of war, required a fundamental transformation in American foreign policy. Once the mantle of great-power status had been conferred on a nation, Roosevelt believed, it could not be doffed. The United States must now jettison its isolationist heritage, embrace its role as a great power, and behave in the only way such a power could—by unapologetically seeking what Wilson had deprecated as its own "aggrandizement and material benefit." It should identify its interests and acquire the means to protect them as necessary and enlarge them as feasible. It should gird itself for action in the seething international arena, where competition among states was intense and interminable, quarter was neither asked nor given, and power alone was the currency of all transactions. These were, of course, the timeless precepts of diplomatic realism, or realpolitik.
Woodrow Wilson instinctively reacted to the onset of the Great War by issuing a proclamation of neutrality. But as the conflict grew in scale and duration, wreaking devastation previously unimaginable, he became increasingly convinced that isolation was no longer a viable posture for the United States. Yet Wilson also felt (along with many other Americans) that Theodore Roosevelt's philosophy, with its embrace of raw power and cold national interest, was irrelevant, even alien. If neither traditional isolationism nor conventional realpolitik would do, then it fell to Wilson to craft an authentically American foreign policy that would so resonate in the hearts of his countrymen as to provide a sustainable basis for American international engagement.
Two assumptions underlay Wilson's thinking: that the circumstances of the modern era were utterly novel, and that providence had entrusted America with a mandate to carry out a singular mission in the world. In Wilson's view, the Great War had so conclusively demonstrated the monstrously destructive capacities of modern industrialized states that it had sundered the very fabric of history. The advent of mass democracy, meanwhile, had made modern governments inescapably beholden to their electorates. Avoiding war thus became diplomacy's supreme objective, and attending to public opinion became an indispensable element of statecraft. Wilson therefore concluded—like his great hero, Abraham Lincoln—that the dogmas of the diplomatic past were inadequate to the stormy present. The unprecedented dangers of the twentieth-century world required statesmen to disenthrall themselves from inherited wisdom about international relations—to learn, in Lincoln's words, to think anew and act anew, and to recognize that government of the people necessarily meant involving the people in their government's diplomacy.
But Wilson also believed that America's history offered salvation to the world. Destiny, in his view, had thrust Americans into a role for which their entire past had been but an elaborate rehearsal. Roosevelt had insisted that the United States must shed the delusions nurtured by its peculiar historical development and become a conventional great power. On the contrary, Wilson said, the peculiarities of their history had fashioned for Americans a lever with which they could move the world. The moment had now arrived for the United States to redeem on a global scale the full revolutionary promise of 1776—to create everywhere the novus ordo saeclorum ("new order of the ages") that the founding generation had so extravagantly predicted.
In the end, of course, Wilson failed to wean his country from its propensity to isolation. The Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty and refused to take the United States into the League of Nations. The United States did not merely revert to isolationism in the years after World War I; it entered what was arguably the most isolationist phase of its history. It testily insisted that the Allied governments repay their wartime debts to the United States Treasury, even at the price of gravely disrupting international financial markets and capital flows. It deliberately stood aloof from the gathering crisis that became World War II.
It has long been customary to argue, as Henry Kissinger has done, that Woodrow Wilson failed "because the country was not yet ready for so global a role." There is much truth to that judgment. But in the longer term, when America finally acquired the necessary muscle, Wilsonianism unambiguously triumphed. This has been the central fact of international life since World War II, which conferred on America a power unmatched and unmatchable. Winston Churchill declared in 1945 that "the United States stand at this moment at the summit of the world"—and there the country has remained. In those circumstances America substantially succeeded in remaking the entire international order along Wilsonian lines. Even those carping Europeans embraced Wilson's ways in the end. As the historian Walter Russell Mead has written,
Wilson's principles … still guide European politics today: self-determination, democratic government, collective security, international law, and a league of nations … France, Germany, Italy, and Britain may have sneered at Wilson, but every one of these powers today conducts its European policy along Wilsonian lines.
Even Kissinger, the arch-realist, concedes that "Wilson's principles have remained the bedrock of American foreign-policy thinking." Those principles informed Franklin Roosevelt's Atlantic Charter in 1941. They shaped the array of multilateral institutions that the United States helped to create at the end of World War II, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United Nations, which not only claims America as a member but maintains its headquarters in the nation's principal city. They guided American policy during the long ideological contest with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. And they misguided the United States into the costly conflict in Vietnam.
Kissinger and Richard Nixon eventually ended the Vietnam War. But they did not dislodge Wilsonian idealism from the center of American foreign policy. Every American president since Wilson has embraced the core precepts of Wilsonianism. Nixon himself hung Wilson's portrait in the White House Cabinet Room.
Wilson's ideas continue to dominate American foreign policy in the twenty-first century. In the aftermath of 9/11 they have, if anything, taken on even greater vitality. Whether America and the world are the better for that Wilsonian ambition is a question whose definitive answer lies in the future. With prescient apprehension, Wilson himself acknowledged both the promise and the peril of the only diplomatic destiny that he thought possible for his country. "God helping her," he said at the conclusion of his address asking Congress for a declaration of war, "she can do no other."