Wilson Agonistes: The Battle Over Woodrow Wilson

Wilson Agonistes: The Battle Over Woodrow Wilson

Wilson Agonistes: The Battle Over Woodrow Wilson

More than any other president’s, the luster of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy corresponds with vogues in foreign policy.


Continuing a long tradition of worldly Europeans condemning naive but dangerous Americans, Sigmund Freud viewed the twenty-eighth president of the United States as nothing less than a global catastrophe. Freud criticized Woodrow Wilson for his messianic religiosity and self-righteousness, concluding that the manner in which his moral absolutism withered in the face of amoral European diplomacy caused much damage to world affairs. Without actually meeting his subject, Freud surmised that Wilson suffered from a variant of the Oedipus complex, which led him to act as a feminized supplicant to Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George and as ill-fatedly macho toward domestic opponents such as Henry Cabot Lodge. Freud’s not-so-subtle insinuation was that few phenomena are more dangerous than an American president with good intentions, a poor sense of geopolitical reality and unresolved Oedipal drives that would have made Little Hans blush.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study, which Freud wrote with the American diplomat William C. Bullitt, was savaged upon publication. Its vitriol is indeed wearying–Freud’s psychoanalytic interpretations often amount to wild conjecture based on unreliable hearsay. The renowned historian A.J.P. Taylor dismissed the book as a “disgrace,” while Vladimir Nabokov wrote that “I welcome Freud’s Woodrow Wilson not only because of its comic appeal, which is great, but because that surely must be the last rusty nail in the Viennese Quack’s coffin.” Yet despite its flaws, the book is not without scraps of insight:

Nothing mattered except noble intentions. As a result, when [Wilson] crossed the ocean to bring to war-torn Europe a just and lasting peace, he put himself in the deplorable position of the benefactor who wishes to restore the eyesight of the patient but does not know the construction of the eye and has neglected to learn the necessary methods of operation.

Change a few words and the passage becomes a pointed critique of the Bush administration’s policy toward the Middle East. And this is why Wilson’s presidency continues to speak to us. More than anyone’s, Wilson’s historical luster corresponds with the foreign policy in vogue at any given time. When retrenchment and realism hold sway, Wilson appears misguided, a blind eye doctor. When internationalism drives American diplomacy, Wilson is a visionary, his presidency a lodestar.

When Freud and Bullitt completed their work in the 1930s, Wilson’s reputation was at its lowest ebb. Throughout the First World War, Wilson had preached the virtues of free trade, national self-determination, responsible decolonization and multilateral institution-building, and had called for the United States to “make the world safe for democracy.” These visionary goals evaporated in 1920 when the Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty, and America retreated from the atavistic intrigues of European-dominated international relations. Through the ’20s and ’30s the League of Nations foundered without US participation, and Germany, Italy and Japan prepared to right earlier wrongs. Had Freud and Bullitt published their polemic at this time, its reception would have been warm. But to spare Wilson’s widow any embarrassment, the book’s publication was postponed until after her death. Thomas Woodrow Wilson ended up appearing in 1967, at a time when Wilson was viewed by many as a foiled but noble prophet whose collaborative world-system dedicated to liberal-capitalist prosperity was twenty-five years ahead of its time. The scathing reaction to Freud’s book was emblematic of the resuscitation of Wilson as a force for good in the world. “Wilsonianism,” the notion that the United States has a duty not only to pursue its self-interest but to make the world more livable, peaceful and democratic, had established an enduring place in the American psyche.

Many neoconservative members of the Bush administration viewed themselves as “hard Wilsonians,” dismissive of multilateral institutions but convinced that Wilson’s crusade for global democracy should shape American foreign policy. Bush crystallized this philosophy in his second inaugural address, asserting that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” It takes no great leap of imagination to cast the 2003 invasion of Iraq in a Wilsonian light. Through deposing Saddam Hussein and occupying the country, Bush’s advisers believed Iraq would become a laboratory for economic liberalization and democratic reform. Rebuilt from the top down, buoyed by vast oil reserves, the nation would follow the same trajectory as postwar Japan and West Germany–two nations pummeled by the US military before rising from the rubble. As the durability of Iraq’s transformation became apparent, the rest of the Middle East would be persuaded to follow its example. Formerly skeptical allies would eat humble pie and assist in this grand project. As Paul Wolfowitz baldly asserted, “unilateralism is the high road to multilateralism.” Where America leads, the world must follow.

The wreckage of Bush’s Iraq policy is extensive, and Wilsonian internationalism can be counted among the wounded. In The Freedom Agenda, James Traub endeavors to reject the neoconservatives’ hard Wilsonianism while arguing that the United States would be disadvantaged by rejecting its national credo of spreading freedom and democracy. His insightful study traces the history of America’s freedom agenda from Wilson’s failed attempt to impose his will at Versailles to the cold war–during which democracy promotion invariably took second place to the exigencies of superpower rivalry–to the triumphs and failures of the Bush, Clinton and Bush II administrations. Is it possible, Traub asks, to emulate Wilson’s sage emphasis on genuine multilateral diplomacy–necessitating some painful but necessary ceding of national sovereignty–but reject the notion that America must itself transform nations into variations on a liberal-capitalist democracy? Are Wilson, Bush and their future heirs simply proselytizers of a delusional vision of America as an “Empire of Liberty,” as Thomas Jefferson phrased it, and blind to the reality that what appears well intentioned in Washington is in fact humiliating to others? Traub is a careful writer, not given to rhetorical flourishes, and his conclusions are measured. He says that it “is reckless to speak of the spread of democracy in transcendent and theological terms,” and that “it is pointlessly alienating and self-righteous to describe the promotion of democracy as a peculiarly American faith.” Nonetheless, Traub stresses that “the next president must not abandon the language of democracy or retreat into the kind of hard-shell realism that George Bush the candidate proposed in 2000.”

As a check of sorts on American hubris, Traub develops three case studies that challenge his central thesis. The first recaps how, after an elected government had fallen in the Dominican Republic in 1916, Woodrow Wilson dispatched the Marines to occupy Santo Domingo and establish a military government. But American efforts to promote rural reform and political development achieved little beyond strengthening the position of wealthy landowners. Following the US withdrawal in 1924, chaos resumed until Rafael Trujillo established his tyrannical rule in 1930. Traub then turns to the Philippines, where for all the blood and treasure that America expended in its campaign to pacify and modernize the nation, involving a military strategy that was often brutal and counterproductive, the results were decidedly mixed. As Traub writes, “The United States ruled the Philippines for almost half a century; the nation that emerged was broadly Americanized in its talk and its tastes, but much less so in its politics and civic culture.” Finally, Traub discusses the economic and political rehabilitation of Japan and Germany beginning in 1945–America’s greatest twentieth-century success in nation-building. But unlike many devotees of democracy promotion, Traub recognizes that the rapid economic growth that both nations experienced was attributable to a peculiar set of circumstances–Germany and Japan had been modern, industrialized societies for two generations before their crushing defeat in the Second World War–that were not in place in less developed countries.

Indeed, Traub is so diligent in telling cautionary tales that he almost persuades the reader to reject his thesis and subscribe instead to the realism of George Kennan or Reinhold Niebuhr. In 1951 Kennan concluded a characteristically learned lecture on the purpose of diplomacy with the hope that

we will have the modesty to admit that our own national interest is all that we are capable of knowing and understanding–and the courage to recognize that if our own purposes and undertakings here at home are decent ones, unsullied by arrogance or hostility toward other people or delusions of superiority, then the pursuit of our national interest can never fail to be conducive to a better world.

This is an elegant exposition on the purpose of realism and a powerful riposte to Wilsonianism. But Traub believes that America can achieve much more than the narrow pursuit of its national interest: the nation can set an example and act as a conduit for democratic reform through the disbursement or denial of monetary resources and trading privileges–a rudimentary element in what Harvard University’s Joseph Nye described as soft power. Traub’s vision for democracy promotion is more modest than the belligerent version advocated by neoconservatives. He also states unequivocally that America must respect the results of democratic elections, regardless of who is brought to power. In Egypt, for example, this may require the United States to distance itself from the repressive government of Hosni Mubarak and reach an eventual accommodation with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood–an Islamist movement with broad-ranging support that, Traub argues, exhibits potential for meaningful engagement with the West. Insights such as these make The Freedom Agenda a thought-provoking and admirably evenhanded book.

Contrary to Traub’s sweeping narrative history of the twentieth century, The Crisis of American Foreign Policy examines Wilson’s resonance today. Four noted scholars–three Wilson sympathizers and one caustic critic–offer thoughtful essays on what Wilson’s historical example might offer twenty-first-century leaders. G. John Ikenberry’s introduction makes his Wilsonian proclivities clear: “in a fundamental sense, there is no turning back to pre-Wilsonian ideas about international order, such as those associated with the old classical balance of power system. For better or worse, we are all Wilsonians now.” Thomas J. Knock displays fine historical literacy in his essay, which succeeds in rescuing Wilson’s core agenda from those who have sought to remold his legacy to suit unrealizable contemporary aims. But it is the combative essays by Tony Smith and Anne-Marie Slaughter that invigorate the collection. At the heart of their dispute is a sharp disagreement over the Princeton Project on National Security, an avowedly Wilsonian initiative that future historians may identify as a blueprint for President Obama’s foreign policy–in the same way that the 1997 Project for the New American Century foretold the direction of the Bush administration.

Co-directed by Slaughter and Ikenberry, both of whom teach political science at Princeton University, the Princeton Project was established in 2004 with the bold intention of emulating George Kennan, the cold war’s grand strategist, and writing, as Slaughter phrases it, “a collective X article” for the twenty-first century. Titled “Forging a World of Liberty Under Law: U.S. National Security in the Twenty-First Century,” the final report emphasizes the merits of liberal internationalism, repudiates the Bush administration’s unilateralism and war of choice in Iraq and recommends that multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and NATO be transformed into more effective decision-making forums. If reforming the UN proves untenable, the authors recommend that a global “Concert of Democracies” be established as “an alternative forum for liberal democracies to authorize collective action.” Most interestingly, while liberal democracy is valorized as the best available political system, the final report de-emphasizes the necessity of democracy promotion. Establishing a government’s legitimacy among its people, it claims, is much more important than assuring that the government assumes and exerts power in a democratic manner. And so the report proposes that “liberty under law”–the creation of concrete legal rights to constrain government action and foster economic growth–is a more useful and realistic goal for certain nations than free and fair elections.

Wilson skeptic Tony Smith claims that the Princeton Project’s final report is “no more than a reformulation of the Bush Doctrine achieved through multilateralizing its terms.” He believes that Ikenberry and Slaughter–whom he describes as “neoliberals”–are as devoted to the maintenance and projection of US hegemony as the neoconservatives of the Bush era. Smith warns that the report echoes Wilson and Bush in its insistence that “the predominance of liberal democracies is necessary to prevent a return to great power security competition,” and that “the preventive use of force” must remain part of America’s military and strategic armory. While the Princeton Project’s vision of a Wilsonian foreign policy for the twenty-first century is ostensibly well intentioned, Wilson in fact bequeathed an unrealizable legacy. The world is infinitely complex, the march of liberal democracy is neither foreordained nor necessarily superior–as China’s economic expansion exemplifies–and placing the United States at the vanguard of a movement designed to spread liberty across the world smacks of self-defeating arrogance, regardless of how it is cloaked. For Smith, Wilsonianism is a distracting Kantian echo in an increasingly Hobbesian world.

Slaughter offers a spirited defense of Woodrow Wilson and the Princeton Project’s final report. She dismisses Smith’s characterization of neoliberalism as a minor foreign policy variation on neoconservatism as “an artificial and often polemical construct,” observing that “Democratic foreign policy experts routinely lament the absence of an equivalent set of coherent ideas among their cohort. It is an interesting if not sad commentary on Democratic politics that the only person who sees such coherence is a critic.” She asserts that any deployment of American forces abroad must be made “multilaterally,” although this may be sanctioned by NATO approval alone if it proves impossible to secure unanimous consent at the UN Security Council. This establishes criteria for US military action that would have permitted the 1999 intervention in Kosovo but would have disallowed the 2003 invasion of Iraq–a convenient formula that will please many humanitarian hawks. Slaughter believes that it is only through close cooperation with the international community that America can achieve its foreign policy goals, and that modesty should infuse the essential task of creating a world of liberty under law:

Human progress in any society requires economic, social, and political transformation from the bottom up. Liberal democratic institutions cannot be imposed or even established from without, but must instead be built from within…. The Princeton Project…portrays democracy as a means to the end of ordered liberty, much as the American founders saw it.

This academic clash will resonate with progressives, for Smith’s skepticism and Slaughter’s optimism reside in many of us. And this same battle of ideas–the pragmatic versus the internationalist–will likely be repeated during high-level debates in the Obama administration. Indeed, Slaughter will participate in this process directly, as President Obama has appointed her to serve as director of policy planning at the State Department–a potentially influential position whose previous occupants include George Kennan, Paul Nitze, Walt Rostow and Paul Wolfowitz.

One must hope that Tony Smith’s cautionary words still ring in Slaughter’s ears. After all, liberal internationalists are particularly susceptible to viewing crises through a black-and-white lens. Liberal cold warriors like Rostow justified the Americanization of the Vietnam War in the name of defending liberty and freedom in South Vietnam. Slaughter herself supported the 2003 war to topple Saddam Hussein in light of “his horrific human rights violations,” a record that led her to believe, “without carefully scrutinizing the available evidence,” that “he had nuclear or biological weapons.” Those with the best intentions have often displayed the weakest foreign policy instincts.

Wilson once wrote that “only those who are ignorant of the world can believe that any nation, even so great a nation as the United States, can stand alone and play a single part in the history of mankind.” In a campaign address in 1912, he employed a very different tone, asserting that it was the duty of the United States to “show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.” If the new president heeds the wisdom of Wilson’s first remark, and avoids being seduced by the hubris of the second, his administration may reclaim Wilsonianism from the tarnishing embrace of his predecessor.

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