Wilsonianism - a Blueprint for 20th century American Foreign Policy?


”... it is the essence of a moral claim that it cannot be compromised, precisely because it justifies itself by considerations beyond expediency.”
(Henry A. Kissinger, 1964)

The first hundred years of the history of the United States were characterized by – among other things – a continuous attempt to prevent foreign countries (in practice the European big powers) from influencing and interfering with American affairs. Most of the major statements on foreign relations – from George Washington’s Farewell Address through the Monroe Doctrine to the Polk Doctrine – basically offered a deal to the Europeans: they should stay away from the Americas and, in return, the U.S. would also do the same with regard to European affairs. These unilateral declarations by and large worked because of two reasons: on the one hand, the major European states were committed to protect the balance-of-powers hammered out in the Congress of Vienna right after the Napoleonic Wars, while, on the other, the U.S. was both too weak to enter into foreign adventures and too much occupied with resolving its internal conflicts. However, this situation started to change during the latter decades of the 19th century. The emergence of a unified Germany, the decline of Austria-Hungary, the gradual breakup of the Ottoman Empire, in other words, the erosion of the international system established in Vienna brought about a totally new situation in Europe. At the same time in the U.S. the Civil War finally ”united” the North and the South and, during the Gilded Age the American economy became the strongest one in the world. The American leaders found it more and more difficult to stay away from the various international conflicts, and in the Spanish--American war in 1898 the U.S. asserted itself as one of the key players in the international arena. A drastic shift in the conduct of American foreign policy went hand in hand with the changes mentioned above: now it was the U.S. that made – sometimes on its own, sometimes with the prodding of others – repeated efforts to shape the affairs of other countries, regions, or even the whole world.

It was at this critical juncture that Woodrow Wilson was elected President of the U.S. in 1912. Woodrow Wilson, a scholar in the White House, had strong convictions regarding the role of the government and the role his country should play in the world. He tried to blend universalism with the concept of the uniqueness of the American experience, value-based American foreign political traditions, which might be called ”liberal”, with internationalism. Hence, his foreign policy is sometimes referred to as liberal internationalism. As such, his approach to international relations can be said to be the most significant American contribution to the theory of international relations in the 20th century. Woodrow Wilson also believed in an antihistoricist notion of universal right. He disregarded the geopolitical and spatial components of international politics, that is, for him what is true is true everywhere at any given time. Policy orientation has nothing to do with historical or geographical configuration in the Wilsonian world. Wilsonianism thus implies that the order of the ”Right” embodies the universal interests of humankind, and opposition to it is inherently inhuman or even criminal. The roots of this idea, in America, can be traced back to the self-righteous Puritan ideology but, naturally, the notion first cropped up in the Bible. Moreover, he proved to be a ”prophet” in his homeland as well: American politicians from Franklin D. Roosevelt through John Foster Dulles to Ronald Reagan professed to be ”Wilsonians” in their conduct of foreign policy. At the same time, the metaphors and ideas used by Wilson in formulating his foreign policy have become elements of another American myth – that of a selfless United States promoting peace and democracy all over the world -- and, as such, they are indispensable in studying both the foreign and the domestic affairs of the U.S. in the last century. The domestic political background of Wilsonianism is contemporary Progressivism. The American Progressive tradition called for more democracy and law, greater justice, less power to the (special) interests, and more power to the people. The great progressive presidents of the age, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson also used their office as a ”bully pulpit”, that is, as a forum for leading and educating the people at the same time. Woodrow Wilson projected this role onto the world stage: he exhorted foreign statesmen for failing to comprehend the requirements and necessities of the new age and thinking in terms of traditional balance-of-power politics instead of endorsing the new, American approach to international relations.

However, ”Wilsonianism” itself is a concept open to debate. It has invariably been called ”pacifist idealism”, ”democratic idealism”, ”utopian internationalism”, ”liberal internationalism”, and ”liberal democratic internationalism”. Woodrow Wilson never summarized his views on foreign policy in a major study – in contrast to his concepts concerning the government in the U.S. In fact, all his books were written during his early academic career, and during and after his presidency he did not write a single book. Wilson believed that the rise of nationalism represented a challenge to liberty and order in the world. However, nationalism could be checked and tamed by proper constitutional orders and free societies. The first step toward this direction should/could be national self-determination, then the liberated peoples would create a global, liberal international economic system. At the same time, the states would be bound together in a League of Nations, which would act as an arbiter in international disputes and, if it failed in that capacity, even as a global ”policeman” to contain aggression. The United States should play the role of the midwife to this new world – in former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s phrase, the U.S. is an ”indispensable nation.”

Wilsonianism is not free, however, from contradictions. In essence, Woodrow Wilson endeavored to impose a sort of normative structure and a machinery for peaceful resolution of conflict. The liberal economic ideas and the normative political standards imposed on the world do not mesh in the long run. The political theory of liberalism is, in the final analysis, a theory of depolitization, which is why it always ends up using illiberal political means or criminalization when the irreconcilable contradiction manifests itself.

In general, the most widely accepted definition of Wilsonianism includes the following elements:

    - war is no longer a useful instrument of policy; world disarmament

    - powers hostile to liberal democracy poison the world political environment; i.e., the promotion of democratic ideas and institutions

    - the European balance of power belongs to the past

    - national self-determination

    - free trade (freedom of the seas)

    - modern politics is global

    - collective security

    - international cooperation in a global political and economic system

    - America as God’s ”chosen nation”

    - a conflict arising anywhere can develop into a major war and, ultimately, a world war.

In fact, Wilsonianism was not a totally new approach to foreign affairs in the United States. Elements of it had appeared much earlier. For instance, Wilson’s proposal for a League of Nations served, among other things, a very practical purpose: the major wars in Europe had always been bad for the U.S., therefore the prevention of the outbreak of another such war was of primary interest to the Americans. Here, there is no opportunity to analyze each component in detail; nevertheless, the most important ones should be discussed in some detail in order to point out the continuity of some of these thoughts.

One of the most prominent, and for people outside of the United States, the most irritating and arrogant idea is that of the chosen nation/people. In America, it originated in the Puritan experience. These early settlers endeavored to establish a ”City on the Hill”, a ”new Jerusalem”, which might serve as a model community for the rest of the world. The idea took root in American public thinking, especially in the 19th century; Abraham Lincoln talked of the U.S. as the ”last and greatest hope of mankind on Earth.” Woodrow Wilson struck a similar note when he stated in a speech in Bismarck, SD on September 10th, 1919, that the U.S. had not been founded for accumulating money, but for leading mankind toward freedom or, citing his arguably the most famous statement with regard to U.S. war aims, the President declared that the American goal was ”to make the world safe for democracy.” This sort of rhetoric has been plagueing U.S. foreign affairs at least from the beginning of the 20th century. Presidents and secretaries of state have tended to oversell their policies and/or visions to a basically isolationist or – at least – largely indifferent public. Again, just to cite a few examples by the most committed Wilsonians, one can remember the global commitment implicit in the Truman Doctrine, John F. Kennedy’s pledge in his Inuagural Address (”Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”), or Ronald Reagan’s missile shield plan. The theme of the ”chosen nation” has been a standard point of reference since the creation of the first settlement in New England in the early 17th century and it has been used ever more efficiently in foreign affairs since the Spanish—American war. It has served to justify American overseas expansion from the beginning of the 20th century and justified maintaining U.S. military bases at a number of sites throughtout the world during the latter half of the same century. Moreover, the almost unbroken record of successes in the field of foreign affairs in the 19th century only contributed to this sense of exceptionalism. Puritan ideology construed misfortune as Providential punishment, success taken as an outward sign of an inward state of grace. The expansion from ocean to ocean (”manifest destiny”) or the easy victory in the Spanish-American war in 1898 were viewed within this framework.

Antimilitary tendencies were also present at the creation of the republic. The Founding Fathers feared a standing army as a potential weapon in the hands of politicians who might want to concentrate too much power in their own hands. Moreover, the American colonials had bitter memories of the activities of the British standing army from the years leading to the American Revolution. Therefore, Article I Section 8 of the Constitution declares that ”no Appropriation of money /to raise and support Armies/ shall be for a longer term than two years.” These feelings survived in the 20th century as well; witness the rapid demobilization in the U.S. after both of the world wars, the Washington Naval Conference in 1921-1922, or Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous warning against the ”military—industrial” complex at the end of his second term as President of the U.S. As for Woodrow Wilson and his contemporaries in the U.S., ”militarism” was identified with Imperial Germany and the ”Huns” in the propaganda language used in the press of the Allied and Associated Powers. Moreover, democracies are almost always uncomfortable with the military and in Wilson’s vision of democracy triumphant all over the world the military did not really fit.

National self-determination was a central emphasis in Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a new world order. In reality, it was the basis upon which the whole structure was to be built. The origins of this idea in American political thinking can be traced back to the Revolution, in which it played a central role. It would be even more accurate to state that the debate over the idea preceded the outbreak of the hostilities in 1775. The first major debate which erupted around the Stamp Act of 1765 was in some ways related to the issue. Namely, the American colonials complained that they were unjustly taxed because they were not represented in the British Parliament. In other words, they did not have a say over their own fate. In face of the fierce opposition to the tax, the British did repeal the act in May 1766, but they also declared that, in their opinion, the American colonials were actually represented in Westminster through so-called virtual representation. By the end of the 19th century the debate itself and the implied questions arising from the debate had become core elements in the American political traditions. But by then the problem of national self-determination had changed with the rise of nationalism and the gradual or abrupt breakup of multiethnic empires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite the theoretical necessity of national self-determination for creating a democratic society, Woodrow Wilson was pursuing a pragmatic or realist policy toward Austria-Hungary until mid-1918. Point 10 of the Fourteen Points (January 1918) only called for the ”autonomous development” of the peoples of Austro-Hungary. Though Wilson himself admitted that it was open to both interpretations, the American President, in harmony with the majority of the Allied politicians, at that time believed that the Monarchy was crucial in maintaning the European balance of power. When he finally dropped the idea and adopted the principle of national self-determination as the official American standpoint during the Paris peace talks, he was forced to compromise again on this point – for instance, in the case of Hungary. Here, at the determination of the new borders of Hungary, economic and political considerations were given priority over the ethnic one. In general, large, ethnically predominantly Magyar territories were awarded to Rumania, Yugoslavia, and Chechoslovakia so that the new states would be economically viable (for instance, the Bácska and Bánát regions), while the general political aim was to strenghten the successor states so that they could form a cordon sanitaire along the border of Soviet Russia.

Free trade and the freedom of the seas were also demands which were on the agenda of the American politicians since the birth of the United States. The leaders of the American Revolution, at least partly, stood for a nondiscriminatory international economic system. Later, whenever there was a major war among the European powers, the right of undisturbed trade and use of the high seas was always one of the crucial questions for the U.S. During the First World War, the most frequent charge leveled against the Central Powers by the Wilson Administration was the disruption of free trade and the violation of neutral rights in the Atlantic Ocean. These two principles remained basic requirements for each American government in the 20th century. In fact, national interests and protection of values coincide in the case as well. It is a commonplace that national security starts at home; more specifically, it is a healthy economy that is an indispensable precondition. The United States came to depend on overseas markets to a larger and larger extent after the Civil War and a vigorous foreign trade became one of the cornerstones of the American economy (expressed in the ”open door” principle around the turn of the 19th century). In addition, the U.S. as a basically status quo power and the strongest economy in the world is also interested in keeping the ”doors open”.

One of the most problematic concepts of Wilsonianism is the promotion of democracy. Even Thomas Jefferson talked about a peaceful world order created and maintained by democratic states. The underlying idea was that democracies are peaceful by nature and they do not go into war with one another. American sponsorship of democracy in foreign countries, a logical extension of this belief, has become one of the most controversial issues for students of American foreign policy. Woodrow Wilson himself left behind a rather mixed record in this field. The Wilson Administration sent the Marines into the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and waged a war against Mexico for three years. In each case Woodrow Wilson believed that the people in these countries had elected incompetent and corrupt leaders and he wanted to ”teach” them how to pick the right ones. These interventions undermined Wilsonianism to a large degree because the victims of these operations interpreted the Wilsonian rhetoric as just another cover for American neo-imperialism.

The ideological framework put together by Woodrow Wilson was briefly rejected by his Republican successors and public opinion in the 1920s. His internationalism seemed to be a radical departure from the hundred-year old tradition of isolationism and intense nationalism. This retreat from international political life and avoidance of taking responsibilities practically came to an end with the Great Depression. The prolonged economic recession drove home the message: that interdependence and early globalism could not be ducked, except at a country’s own peril. In effect, Wilsonian liberal internationalism was smuggled back through the back door by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the latter half of the 1930s (the ”quarantine speech” on October 1937, the ”cash-and-carry” provision of the Neutrality Act, etc.) and the President also appointed a number of Wilsonians in key positions. The rise of Fascism and Nazism breathed new life into Wilsonianism because the ideological divide became clear cut and easily understandable even for that section of the public which was not familiar with all the nuances of international politics. After the conclusion of the Second World War, this ideological divide shifted to separate the surviving totalitarian ideology, Communism, from Western liberal internationalism.

The Wilsonian liberal internationalism enjoyed widespread support among the members of the establisment and the public alike during the Cold War years, except among some conservative critics. The U.S. joined all the major international organizations; in fact, it was instrumental in bringing most of them into being at the Dumbarton Oaks and Bretton Woods conferences.While after the First World War Wilson’s League of Nations had been rejected by the majority of the American people, mostly because of the global commitment exemplified by Article X of the Covenant, in the late 1940s bipartisan and public support made it possible for the Truman Administration to enter into the first peacetime military organization (NATO) and to accept all the responsibilities involved in that membership. In fact, the Wilsonian idea of the U.S. acting as a ”midwife” in creating a new, democratic world order, was even adopted by the Western allies of the U.S., which then was able to build an ”empire by invitation.” The U.S. had a clear mission and a mandate to lead and to protect the community of free nations – this role fitted well into the myth/idea of the U.S. as being a ”chosen country.”

However, this sense of uniqueness, moral superiority, and omnipotence was shaken in Vietnam. On one level, the war in Vietnam can be interpreted as a classic example of Wilsonian liberal internationalism. The U.S. believed, it had to stand on firm moral ground in defending a country against Communist invasion and attempting to build a democracy society in South Vietnam. One of the major problems, not just in Vietnam, but in countries like those in Central and Latin America, was that the U.S. tried to export its system of government and its system of values to places which had totally different traditions, values, and perspectives. In other words, Wilsonianism was employed in a dogmatic way – as Woodrow Wilson himself used his ideas during his presidency. The reaction to the experience in Vietnam was a turn toward the conservative tradition in American foreign policy; i.e., more limited and modest goals, a careful analysis of means and ends, a less ideological approach to international affairs. This concept triumphed during the Nixon Administration when the President and his National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger, tried to remove the overly ideological elements from their foreign policy and moved closer to the classic Realpolitik tradition.

With the fall of Richard Nixon and his ”imperial presidency”, the essence of which was to concentrate power in the White House even at the expense of democratic processes, Wilsonianism was revived. Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on the protection of human rights all over the world was clearly conceived in the idea of American moral superiority and uniqueness, while his successor in the White House, Ronald Reagan, continued to use a rhetoric strongly reminiscent of the moralism of Woodrow Wilson. However, President Reagan did not stop there and in the so-called Reagan Doctrine he promised help to all the forces in the world fighting undemocratic Communism. Therefore, one may make the case that Ronald Reagan was the ”truest” Wilsonian from all the Presidents in the 20th century. His foreign policy was based on a blend of ideological superiority (chosen people, uniqueness), crusading spirit (assisting the forces of freedom all over the world), standing up for ”American” values, restoring national pride, and unilateralism (see, for instance, his Central American policy, or the debate over the economic sanctions against the Soviet Union, etc.). However, there was a clear cut contradiction between assisting forces fighting Communism and supporting overtly undemocratic regimes in a number of cases. In order to eliminate this contradiction, the Reagan Administration reverted to some sort of syllogism when Jeane Kirkpatrick constructed a difference between ”authoritarian” and ”totalitarian” regimes. The former could be assisted trying to democratize themselves (right-wing governments), while the latter could not be transformed into a democratic society in any way.

The end of the Cold War created an ambiguous situation for Wilsonianism. On the one hand, it was claimed that Wilsonianism achieved its ultimate goal: liberal democracy remained as the only prevailing ideology. Furthermore, it can also be asserted that even some international organizations have been ”Wilsonized”: for instance, NATO’s new strategy calls for a defense of values and even allows out-of-area actions in order to protect these values. On the other hand, an equally valid case can be made to the effect that Wilsoniasm as the basis of American foreign policy for the better part of the 20th century has become obsolete with the end of the Cold War. With the disappearance of the Communist bloc, there is no need to continue waging an ideological war – in fact, there is no one to wage such a war against. The major ideological adversary for close to a half a century, the Soviet Union, collapsed and the remaining Communist states, such as Cuba or North Korea, were not worth the effort. The other Communist giant, China, has never attracted such an ideological and intellectual support in the world, that would require the U.S. to keep its ideological warfare capabilities in place. At the same time, the success of Wilsonianism was partly based on the sustained support by the American public. The public could be mobilized for the noble cause of promoting democracy abroad, fighting Communism, which was presented as the mortal enemy of the U.S., and making sacrifices for ”making the world safe for democracy.” These challenges have practically disappeared and it is more and more difficult to persuade the electorate to support an activist foreign policy. Moreover, the social and cultural changes which started in the 1960s also work against Wilsonianism. The emerging multiculturalism tends to undermine the myths, especially the claims of uniqueness, of being the ”chosen people”, and of a special mission of the U.S. in the world – each of which is an organic element of Wilsonianism. Nevertheless, there have been attempts on different levels to salvage the essence of Wilsonianism, even if Woodrow Wilson’s name was not mentioned in this context. Two examples might be mentioned here: on a theoretical level, Samuel P. Huntington has identified new potential enemies in his vision of ”the clash of civilizations”, while on a practical level the new Bush Administration has played up the threat posed by Communist China with the implication that China may replace the Soviet Union as the most dangerous foe of the U.S. in the next few decades.

Several critics of Wilsonianism have remarked that Woodrow Wilson’s ideas can only be interpereted as an ideological construction, which does not make enough room and is not flexible enough for the realities of world politics. However, Wilsonianism can also be seen as a conscious attempt to reconcile the liberal and conservative traditions in American foreign policy and to provide a framework for American national security. The liberal ideals of self-determination, free trade, and disarmament, if promoted worldwide, would create an international environment in which the U.S. as the strongest country in the world, would be able to retain its leading position and to prevent any revolutionary changes in the international structure – for in case of any significant shift in it the U.S. is bound to be a loser. Therefore, Wilsonianism is also a Realpolitik recipe for the Americans to follow if they wish to retain all the gains they achieved in the 20th century.



- Francis Fukuyama (1992): The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.

- John Lewis Gaddis (1997): We Now Know. New York: Oxford University Press.

- Samuel P. Huntington: ”The Clash of Civilizations”. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Summer 1993).

- Henry A. Kissinger (1964): A World Restored. Castlereagh, Metternich and the Restoration of Peace 1812-1822. New York: Grosset and Dunlop.

- NATO Handbook. Brussels: NATO Office of Information and Press, 2001. 42-47.

- Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. Dwight D. Eisenhower. 1960-1961 (1961): Washington, D.C. United States Government Printing Office.

- Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. John F. Kennedy. 1961 (1962): Washington, D.C. United States Government Printing Office.

- Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. Ronald Reagan. 1983. Book 1 (1984): Washington, D.C. United States Government Printing Office.

- Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. Harry S. Truman. 1947 (1963): Washington, D.C. United States Government Printing Office.

Tony Smith (1994). America’s Mission: The U.S. and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the 20th Century . Princeton: Princeton UP.

- David Steigerwald: ”The Reclamation of Woodrow Wilson?” Diplomatic History, Vol. 23, NO. 1 (Winter 1999). 79-99.