Innumerable commentators have made comparisons between President Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism and his alleged missionary zeal with the ideas of the neoconservatives now so influential in the Bush Administration. But any analogies are essentially inaccurate and they all ignore the crucial historical context.
Wilson developed his ideas, with the help of Colonel Edward House, wholly as a direct response to Lenin’s lofty and spectacularly successful rhetoric for a new internationalism to replace the folly of the nations that had brought on the First World War. Prior to the bolshevik challenge Wilson’s notions on the international order and America’s goals were largely economic-based on British free trade doctrine–and quite banal.
Both Wilson and Lenin developed their ambitious theories as a form of political propaganda to reach the masses over the heads of traditional rulers and win their allegiance, with conscious emphasis on brevity and simplicity.
Hence Wilson’s 14 Points, which was extraordinarily brief-though longer than some of his advisers wanted- calling for self-determination and a radical departure from conventional power politics and the initiation of a new era of self-rule and democracy. Wilson’s momentary non-conformity was based on expediency rather than conviction.
There is no Wilsoniam system based on a reasoned approach to the international order, but largely empty rhetoric intended to suit the political needs of the moment to counter the Bolshevik’s charismatic appeals throughout Europe to the war-weary masses. Had there not been a Lenin there was scant possibility that Wilson would emerge in the image of an idealist ready to denounce prewar and wartime treaties enshrining imperialist acquisition.
This superficiality, based on sheer opportunism, is the only thing that binds so-called “Wilsonian” goals with the slogans now emanating from Washington. Both are irrelevant illusions. The crucial difference is that the context is entirely different and there is today no powerful and infuential internationalist ideology in existence, either in the United States or elsewhere.
The fact is that the Bush Administration cannot use Wilson’s alleged idealism to justify its actions and that it is really wholly devoid of serious, realistic ideas. It has slogans and rhetoric, nothing more.
GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.