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.