None of the past 43 presidents of the United States has seen his name used to denote an aspect of foreign policy than Woodrow Wilson. Wilsonianism has come to be used in the definition of a United States foreign policy that is largely centered on the spread and restoration of democracy in the world. It is difficult to define the term “Wilsonianism” but its ideals can be discerned from looking at what Woodrow Wilson espoused to establish and the kind of world that his foreign policy sought to create. It can also be discerned from looking at the dominant concepts that emerged from his policies. Wilsonianism has become a largely studied concept by scholars mostly due to the influence it placed in the world from the period of the Great War and beyond. It is in no doubt that it was able to shape and determine America’s foreign policies for a number of decades after the demise of Wilson’s leadership, its core ideals being interventionism and the spread of democracy. The raging question is whether Wilsonianism still survives in America’s global politics or whether its influence has waned. This paper will argue in details for the position that Wilsonianism is still rife in America. In doing so, this paper will focus at both the foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush, clearly pointing out the influences of Wilsonianism in the current administration’s foreign policy.
To understand the dominant ideals and the motivations of Wilsonianism, it is important to provide background information of its pioneer. Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President of the United States who ruled at a tumultuous period when the world was on the brink of self destruction due to the First World War. His tenure in the president of America began in 1913 and was reelected 4 years later. A look at the history of the United States at the time of the First World War reveals that Woodrow Wilson had opted to remain neutral making no preparations for the war. His stand was that the rising conflict could be resolved through dialogue and negotiations. For three years from 1914, America opted to stay out of the conflict although it was apparent that Woodrow’s support was for the British. This non interference however could not last for long as the United States was drawn into the conflict by the open animosity displayed by Germany towards America’s interests. According to Wilson, the entrance of the United States into was to pursue a safer world where democracy would thrive in. This was necessitated by the increase by the suffering that the war was causing to humanity due to the heavy costs in terms of lives and property.
Terming the First World War as the war to end all wars, Wilson initiated a number of policies at home that were seeking to stifle any opposition to the support he was giving to the British in the war. In his address to the Congress, he made a concerted effort to paint Germany in a bad light claiming it had become an enemy of the United States. He rallied the country behind his cause emphasizing that the war was necessary if democracy was to be spread. Although there was some minor opposition to the war, there was near unanimity on the need for a war and congress reached a decision in 1914 to declare war against Germany.
A look at Woodrow Wilson leadership indicates that it was a regime that paid more attention to foreign affairs than to domestic affairs. He was taking after the bold steps his predecessors such as Theodore Roosevelt who had played an immense role in shaping a powerful America that was exerting its influence globally. His imperialistic approach to international affairs was based on the premise that the United States had a moral obligation to ensure the spread of democracy and support the right to self determination. His foreign policy then would ensure democracy was protected worldwide and would also play a key leading role in freeing people that were held hostage by dictatorial regimes.
The interventionist policy could be well seen even in the post First World War period. By then, Wilson had directed most of his attention to the Latin America. A look at the United States and Latin America indicates patriarchal based relationship where the US plays big brother politics. Successive American presidents have been pre occupied with the affairs of Latin American especially on the institutionalization of democracy. However, as Malloy and Seligson agree, “Of all American presidents, none was probably a more fervent advocate of democracy than Woodrow Wilson”. As they further add, his preoccupation with Latin America “was a harbinger of the high tide of US imperialism.” (220)
The United States entry into the war led to its conclusion and the surrender of Germany. With this war, the United States supremacy was ascertained and it could now flex its muscle to a more vocal presence and influence across Europe. It is at this time that Woodrow Wilson unveiled his Fourteen Points plan in regard to foreign policy. Key to these fourteen points was to recognize “the growth of nationalism by calling for the right of all people to national self determination, the freedom to determine their own form of government.” (Hakim & Mintz 211). It is these pronouncements amongst others that came to be pursued by Wilson and appropriately was the key definition of Wilsonianism as far as foreign policy is concerned.
These ideals were promulgated and put into practice by the successive presidents after the end of Wilson’s two terms. The core defining characteristic of Wilsonianism was its commitment to a foreign policy that promotes the democratization of the world. This conviction, a look at the past decades, has become an American tradition. It is a tradition that was appropriately applied to justify the calls for decolonization and the opposition to the communist influence during the cold war.
Indeed the ideals of Wilsonianism were embraced by the successive regimes as can be discerned from their dominant positions in foreign policy. Though Wilson’s policy did not record any major successes during his time due to the multipolar nature of the international system, it set a good framework for peace and his self determination calls were a great inspiration to regimes especially in Asia and across Europe. His idealism would also see the conception of the League of Nations that advocated for democratization of institutions as a way of avoiding international conflicts. America’s interest could only be safeguarded if nations became democratized as that would ensure the survival of liberal economics from which the US with its vast market interests would stand to gain.
Though some of the former president’s foreign policies departed from Wilsonianism, the recent past has seen its resurgence. Looking at the past three regimes indicates a clear manifestation of Wilsonianism in the foreign policy. None of the past policies indicates the survival of Wilsonianism than what the Clinton’s administration referred to as the Engagement and Enlargement policy, a blue point of the regime’s approach to the interaction of the United States with the rest of the world. Core to the Engagement and Enlargement plan is three ideas that broadly deal with the increased role of the United States in fostering democracy globally. The plan also outlines the need for America to be ready to engage in international conflicts to safeguard its interests and to aggressively pursue a leading role in international trade. Such a plan clearly compares to what Wilson espoused in his foreign policy which was full of democracy and liberal market economics rhetoric. Another aspect of Wilsonianism is evidenced in the Latin America. The centrality of Latin America in the nation’s foreign policy has largely been exhibited. Wilson took his interventionist measures to Haiti in 1916 to restore the rule of law, the same was evidenced in the 1990s when US forces were sent on a mission to Haiti to restore democracy and safeguard Americans interests.
The same interventionist approach exhibited during the First World War in the name of safeguarding humanity can be seen again in the 1990s after Saddam Hussein, Iraqis president, invaded Kuwait. The United States stepped in pressurizing the United Nations to resolve the issue peacefully, that having failed, the US through the coalition forces stepped into liberate Kuwait. A look at the past years also indicates a clear espousal of Wilsonianism where the United States initiated crusades against tyrannical leaders even through military interventions. There is also evidence of the reliance on international institutions to resolve global conflicts. Woodrow Wilson laid down the framework that gave rise to the League of Nations, an international organizations that would foster and restore peace through amicable solutions to conflicts through dialogue. Although this did not work out as expected, Wilson’s exceptional contribution has been hailed. International organization such as the NATO and the UN still remain central.
A look however at the current Bush leadership reveals immense influence by Wilsonianism. This regime has taken an approach where it exalts a moral standing that remains unequalled. America more than ever embraces unilateralism and has increasingly intervened in global conflicts in the name of pursuing democracy and maintaining global peace. It is this moral approach and the insistence on the need for democratization that has resulted to scholars branding Bush foreign policy as Wilsonian; a look through the Bush doctrine affirms that indeed Wilsonianism decades later still survives.
In 2002, Bush outlined his national security strategy which in strong words spoke about the rising threats to the United States emphasizing its willingness to strike out against both real and the possibly emerging threats. The strategy stated explicitly that it would “expand the circle of development by opening solutions and building the infrastructure of democracy” as well “as ignite a new era of global economic growth through free market and free trade” (Shai & Merkaz 186). Core to this strategy was the fight against terrorism and global peace. Bush sees terrorism as a distraction from democracy and has been quick to brand any regime that supports terrorism as largely dictatorial. To such leaderships, Bush has emphasized the need to go to greater lengths to ensure democracy as noted in his strategy, which sates that the United States would tirelessly “work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.” (Axtmann 98)
In line with the traditional moralistic approach that sees parallelism between democracy and progressive economics, Bush in his strategy echoed what has become the 20th century rhetoric by stating that “governments must fight corruption, respect human rights and embrace the rule of law.” (Axtmann 98). This is a glaring example of Wilsonian approach to the problems that bedeviled the world; based on the premise that the United States must play a leading role in the restoration of democracy which he saw as core to the realization of America’s economic interests.
Though Bush has not been obsessed with interventionism in global conflicts, he has clearly indicated that he cannot shun from applying military force to safeguard the security of the world which as the United States secretary of state Condoleezza Rice observed is “defined more by the dynamics within weak and failing states then by the borders between strong and aggressive ones” (Cited in Chandler 2)
In the first few months into the Bush’s administration, most scholars agree that Bush had no indications of leaning towards Wilsonianism. He was clearly being seen as embracing Jacksonianism. Jacksonianism is largely led by the belief in the maintenance of American supremacy and sovereignty even in a backdrop of international criticism. It is a blind preoccupation with the destruction of both real and perceived enemies in the name of national interest regardless of the prevailing international criticism. A look at the immediate post 9-11 era indicates Jacksonian principles at play dominating Bush’s foreign policy, where he tied “foreign involvement to American security and economic wellbeing.” (Webb, 44). It is the same events of the 9-11 terror attack that would transform Bush from Jacksonianism to acquire the belief as Mead (Cited in Record 26) observes that “the United States has both a moral obligation and an important national interest in spreading American and social values throughout the world.” This was largely as a result of the failure of Jacksonianism and the huge political cost brought forth by the Iraq war.
A look at the period before the terror attacks in the United States indicates that the nation’s foreign policy lacked in coherence and was dominated by neo conservatism. By then the focus of the nation was more on the rising challenges to the American hegemony by the rising states and not on terrorists. Countries such as china, Iran and Iraq were being seen as fuelling this challenge and many were against the leading notion in the Clinton administration of hoping for market liberalization in China to have a stabilizing effect in the international economic system. Bush on the other hand by then was not pre occupied with foreign policy focusing more on the “domestic issues as tax cuts, deregulation, expanded oil drilling, government support of faith-based charities and blocking stem cell research.” (Record 26). He had not also given an indication of altering the Clinton’s administration foreign policy in regard to china and North Korea. This however was before the ground shaking events of the terrorist attack that “immediately transformed Bush into a foreign policy president and prompted, him, over the following year, to embrace the neoconservative vision of the world and America’s role in it.” (Record 26)
The initial policy after the attack was driven by Jacksonianism. A look at the Iraq war reveals underlying criticism internationally especially the allegations by Bush that Iraq was a threat to the United States and the world due to its close relationship with terrorists. Others on the list as possible sponsors of terrorism are Korea and Iran. It is important to point out that the existing link that exists between these countries and terrorism is still murky. The high handed approach to foreign policy and the need to demonstrate America’s unrivalled invincibility demonstrated characteristics of Jackson; these however were not long lasting. This raging international and domestic criticism prompted a change of tact. The fact that the much touted weapons of mass destruction could not be found in Iraq led to a change of tune and the echoing of the Wilsonian principles of “democratization and self determination.” (Rabel 15)
The invasion of Afghanistan was largely hailed and the United States received immense support, the same however could not be said of Iraq. It is this justification of the Iraq war that brings out the elements of Wilsonianism in Bush’s foreign policy. His justification was based on claims that the Iraq war was necessary as it had led to the democratization “not only to the people of the middle east but in fact o the entire structure of world organization.” (Smith 46). A true replication of Wilsonian ideals during the Great War.
Indeed, President Bush has indicated a strong preoccupation with democracy especially in the Middle East like his counterpart Woodrow Wilson had with Latin America. As aforementioned, Wilson believed it to be the moral obligation of the United States to oversee the affairs of Latin America especially towards the eradication of dictatorial regimes. During his presidency, Wilson carried out numerous military interventions in countries such as Haiti amongst others. This intervention was driven by the need for democratization of Latin America and the parallelism he drew with economic development. President Bush in the spirit of Wilsonianism has espoused similar ideals his point of interest being to restore democracy and the rule of law in the Middle East. President Bush has been drawing parallelism between the autocratic regimes in the Middle East and terrorism sponsorship. After the defeat of Saddam Hussein and the change of regime, Bush’s eyes were on Iran. Like his counterpart Woodrow Wilson, Bush has been led by the belief that democratically elected leaderships will be the answer to the threat of terrorism. He believes that by installing democratic regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq will eradicate the safe abodes that terrorists have been enjoying in the Middle East. Woodrow Wilson more that 90 years ago espoused similar ideals seeing installation of democratic institutions as the way to arrest the global conflict evidenced during the First World War. This is evidence that decades later, the influence of Wilsonianism is still being felt in the United States foreign policy.