Presented by

Beverly Tucker





The Raleigh Tavern Philosophical Society

Tomball, Texas




March 27, 2003








We shall see how the counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger; how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s eye of disaster. We shall see how absolute is the need of a broad path of international action pursued by many states in common across the years, irrespective of the ebb and flow of national politics.


Winston Churchill, 1947

The Gathering Storm



I.   Introduction


For Woodrow Wilson, it was divine providence that brought him to the presidency in 1912, and it was that same divine providence that brought America to the world as the deliverer from despotism, inhumanity, self-interest, and war.  Wilson, and ultimately his administration, espoused principles which held that: peace may be attained through the spread of democracy; individuals and states should be judged by the same ethical criteria; and a universal system of law dictates national interest.  He believed that it was America’s duty to use its strength and influence to create a world of cooperation and collective security.  World peace could become a reality and he would be immortalized.

While Wilson’s concept of collective security was considered revolutionary for the time, it was not entirely original.  In September 1915, in an attempt to entice America into World War I, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey made an inquiry of Wilson’s administration as to whether “the President [would] be interested in a League of Nations committed to enforcing disarmament and to the pacific settlement of disputes.”[1]  Eight months later Wilson presented his preliminary plan for a “universal association of the nations…to maintain the inviolate security…and prevent any war…”—not that it wasn’t Wilson’s idea, because it was. Otherwise how would Grey have known that such an inquiry would peak Wilson’s interest. 

Well in advance of Grey’s proposed League of Nations, in the eighteenth century it was Lord John Cateret, British Foreign Secretary from 1742 to 1744, who warned of the need for a “permanent engagement” with the Habsburgs to balance against the Bourbons.  In the early nineteenth century Lord Robert Castlereaugh, British Foreign Secretary from 1812 to 1821, promoted a European Congress system that would address potential as well as actual threats, and then in 1880 British Prime Minister William Gladstone proposed the first version of what became known as collective security.  All three ultimately failed because, each time, the public rejected the notion that security at home required a permanent commitment or “continental entanglement.”  Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations would face the same challenge and eventual failure in America in 1919.  It would not be until after World War II that either the British or American publics would fully agree to an international system of collective security focused on addressing possible dangers.[2]

Spreading the freedoms and democracy known only to Americans was an important aspect of Wilson’s philosophy.  Democracies, according to Wilsonianism, do not make war against one another and are only interested in advancing universal principles.  The irony today is that modern American Wilsonians who espouse these ideas are viewed by many abroad as promoting American hegemony and practicing the bully tactics of a superpower.  But the truth of the matter is that the idea of America as a “shining city on the hill”, a model of morality to inspire others, has been a basic American theme since it’s founding.  Wilson’s goal was to inject this theme into an active foreign policy. 





II.   Pre-Wilsonian America


In his Farewell Address on September 17, 1796, President George Washington warned against “permanent” alliances and said that we (Americans) would be wise not to

implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of

[European] politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of

her friendships or enmities. Our detached and distant situation invites

and enables us to pursue a different course.


The geopolitical basis for such remarks lay in the distinction between the European perception of security and the U.S. perception of the same.  In the early days of the Republic the United States, surrounded by two vast oceans and relatively weak neighbors, did not concern itself with the challenges of equilibrium.  In the founders view, the security America enjoyed was bestowed on her by divine providence (the same providence that Wilson will later rely on).  This unique sense of security produced a foreign policy that condemned Europe’s wars and its “cynical methods of statecraft” which caused them, and emphasized international law and the spread of democracy.  Unlike their European counterparts, American statesmen believed that there was “but one system of ethics for men and for nations.”[3]  They visualized a world, not of competing self-interests creating “distrustful rivals”, but one of harmony whereby states would act as "cooperative partners.”[4] 

Clearly the American and the European approaches to foreign policy were the products of their own distinctive circumstances and experiences.  While America’s geographic position inspired the confidence to establish a policy of addressing a challenge after it presented itself, Europe’s security was much more precarious, whereby wars were often fought to preempt potential threats.  America was able to establish a foreign policy providing for the resistance against actual change, whereas European policies had to provide for coalitions against possible change.[5]  Europe had been forced into a balance of power system when, after the Thirty Years War, its “medieval dream of universal empire” crumbled, creating states of effectively equal strength.  The system was set up, not to avoid crises or wars, but to maintain stability and encourage moderation among the states.  Its objective was not peace, but poise and restraint.

Peace, however, was an objective of American policy.  Pursuing peace and security around the world would be part of America’s grand design, starting with peace and security at home.  Early American statesmen established a policy that would adapt to their realistic needs as well as their idealistic desires. While the Founding Fathers disapproved of the principles of the European equilibrium, they appreciated them and, persuaded by Alexander Hamilton, used those same principles in dealing with the European powers to maintain their own (America’s) security.  This policy was expressed by Thomas Jefferson:

We especially ought to pray that the powers of Europe may be so poised

and counterpoised among themselves that their own security may

require the presence of all their forces at home leaving the other parts

of the world in undisturbed tranquility.[6]


In Hamilton’s view it would take more than prayer to keep the European powers poised and restrained, and it would be in the best interest of the United States to make its presence felt—to display a cool interest in European affairs without allying itself with any one power.  Hamilton believed that the burgeoning young republic should manipulate the European balance of power system, and benefit from its operation, without actually participating in it.  This interest – this influence – could be advantageous for America in its goals to achieve power, spread democracy and establish peace.

Even though early American statesmen pursued a foreign policy similar to one they denounced, they believed they were guided by more enlightened, less selfish principles than their European counterparts.  Then, as now, American statesmen maintained that America has a special responsibility to spread its values as its contribution to world peace.  They further asserted that peace could not be achieved without the spread of democratic institutions, because democracies typically do not make war on each other.[7]    They ultimately believed that it was their duty and providential mission to advance the ideas and ideals of their democratic, freedom-loving republican experiment to benefit all of mankind.  As perceived by the Founding Fathers, America, in essence, exemplified a “universal cause.”  

The early debate over what role America should play in its quest to spread freedom and democracy around the world created much angst then as it does today.  Moral principle seemed to be at odds with security.  While American statesmen did not denounce European ambition or the need for security, they did denounce the methods used to achieve it.  As president, Thomas Jefferson found himself between a rock and a hard place, wanting America to “enjoy the fruits of power without falling victim to the normal consequences of its exercise.”[8]  The prevailing American view supported Jefferson’s belief that the U.S. should remain detached serving only as “a standing monument and example”… “acting for all mankind.”[9]  The U.S. would advocate the spread of democracy, but would not justify it with force.

However, in 1804 Secretary of State James Madison muddied the waters of diplomacy when he expressed America’s moral obligation differently stating that

the United States owe to the world as well as to themselves to let the

example of one government at least protest against the corruption

which prevails.[10] 


With this said, Madison left unanswered the question of just how far the U.S. would be willing to go to pursue its mission.  This put U.S. foreign policy on a tightrope, balancing between the high-minded principle of a peaceful pursuit of hope for the world and the possible display of a hypocritical dictatorial and militaristic power it had condemned the European states of flaunting.  It was a tricky position to be in, especially when an opportunity to defend liberty presented itself, as it did in 1821 when the Greeks sought liberation from Ottoman rule.  But Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, in all his wisdom and brilliance, successfully guided the focus away from direct intervention while sustaining the ideological mission of the American people.   This advancement of American ideals by indirect means became the focus of American foreign policy until the early twentieth century: 

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall

be unfurled, there will be America’s heart, her benedictions, and her

prayers. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She

is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the

champion and vindicator only of her own. …[11]


Two years later the Monroe Doctrine expanded Adams’ proposal, “liberating” the U.S. from playing a role in the balance of power system of Europe altogether. The U.S. enjoyed a state of isolation in the nineteenth century, with a mission to make the world a better place without actually having to participate in said world.  As Henry Kissinger points out, “the very notion of foreign policy…had little place in American thinking” from the time the Monroe Doctrine was implemented until the Spanish-American War.  With the signing of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, all traces of Hamiltonian foreign policy were eradicated.  It would be buried deep within the American conscience until its resurrection by T.R. in 1902. 

            Theodore Roosevelt was the first American president to directly apply America’s power to its mission of world peace.  While he supported the belief that the United States held within its system of government the hope for all humanity, he did not believe that the U.S. could actually fulfill such hope, the hope of peace and democracy, in isolation.  He rejected the self-righteous notion that America’s virtue was somehow unique among nations, allowing it to remain detached from the rest of the world as it pursued its mission.  Roosevelt believed that the United States was not a great cause but a great power.  He insisted that America had a responsibility to use its power to fulfill its destiny and satisfy its own interests by establishing itself as a participant in – no, the guardian of – the global balance of power system.  T.R. replaced America’s policy of restrained, “unentangled” influence with one of deliberate participation and effective change.  And to a “warrior-statesman” like himself, an active foreign policy devoid of military might was inconceivable, thus, the Big Stick was crafted.

T.R. began his pursuit of global interaction by asserting U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere.  Under his leadership the U.S. strove to preserve and promote stability with military intervention in problem areas like Venezuela (1902), the Dominican Republic (1904) and Cuba (1906).  In addition he pursued a canal route through Central America with a vengeance, achieving success by aggravating the existing tensions between Panama and Colombia.  T.R.’s greatest presidential accomplishment according to himself was the building of the Panama Canal.  But it was his bold action to amend the Monroe Doctrine with a blatant interventionist interpretation that gave the U.S. prestige and a bad name all at once.  With the so-called Roosevelt corollary established in 1904, the Monroe Doctrine was transformed giving the U.S. the right to act as an “international police power” in “flagrant cases of such wrong-doing or impotence” in the Western Hemisphere.

Dominance in the Western Hemisphere was only part of America’s role in global power politics under the leadership of T.R.  In his relations with Europe and Asia, Roosevelt maneuvered through the global balance of power system with a skill and acuity unlike any president before him.  His instinctive abilities and geopolitical realism are demonstrated in his acquiescence of Japan’s occupation of Korea, in America’s role in the Algeciras Conference to balance Germany, and in T.R.’s diplomatic efforts to balance Russia and Japan against each other with the Treaty of Portsmouth.   Roosevelt denounced the notion of international law, ridiculed the concept of disarmament and referred to the establishment of a world government relying on “impossible promises” as “abhorrent.”  He asserted that

a milk-and-water righteousness unbacked by force is to the full as wicked

as and even more mischievous than force divorced from righteousness.

Regarding international disarmament T.R. stated that

            it would be both foolish and an evil thing for a great and free nation

to deprive itself of the power to protect its own rights and even in

exceptional cases to stand up for the rights of others. Nothing would

more promote iniquity…than for the free and enlightened peoples…

deliberately to render themselves powerless while leaving every

despotism and barbarism armed.


While his ability to understand and control the international systems has been matched by no other president, it is not T.R.’s traditional principles of European statecraft adapted to the American condition that prevailed in shaping American thought.  It is Woodrow Wilson’s universal principles of statecraft and collective security that have held sway for more than three quarters of a century.

Unlike Wilson, T.R. was an “offensive realist”[12] believing that struggle, not peace, is a normal human condition, that the ethical criteria to judge individuals and states is different, and that American national security and interests should be the foremost concern in establishing an interventionist foreign policy.  This doctrine was difficult for Americans to comprehend much less appreciate.  American experience thus far had taught them differently so they weren’t willing to alter their view of America as a “universal cause” guided by divine providence.  And they weren’t altogether ready to participate in a balance of power system of politics that they had always believed to be unjust.  Something more than self-interest would have to jar Americans out of their isolation.  Woodrow Wilson the “prophet-priest,” not T.R. the “warrior-statesman,” would ultimately provide the justification America needed to pursue an international role.[13]  And it would be Wilson’s policies that would be remembered and permanently woven into the fabric of American foreign policy.  



III.   Wilsonian Principles and The League of Nations


            Woodrow Wilson believed that America could truly know freedom only if the entire world did.  He translated George Washington’s warning against foreign entanglements to suit his own purposes, claiming that what Washington meant to say was that America should “avoid becoming entangled in the purposes of others”—that anything concerning humanity could “never be foreign to us.”  He arrogantly twisted Washington’s directive in order to authorize global intervention and exploited his neutrality stance making participation in the world war inevitable.[14]  Wilson’s foreign policy was as presumptuous and grandiloquent as he was.  After World War I the United States emerged dominant with Europe never fully regaining world leadership, and with this new power Woodrow Wilson “seized the day,” boldly announcing that the U.S. would not participate in the old European system.

At his urging, the victorious Associated Powers of World War I established the League of Nations at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.  The League’s mission as defined in its charter, known as the Covenant, was to “promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security.”  The Covenant was approved as part of the Treaty of Versailles.  The creation of the League was Wilson’s greatest triumph at the peace conference.  He was recognized for his efforts with the Nobel Peace Prize.  This was quite an honor and the ultimate achievement.  Unfortunately (for France primarily), President Wilson’s uncompromising manner and partisan efforts to alienate the Senate Republicans were equally successful, thus, the U.S. did not join the League.[15] 

            The League of Nations began on January 10, 1920, when the Treaty of Versailles went into effect.  League members made a quest for peace through international law, arms control, conference diplomacy, and what came to be known as “functionalist” cooperation (humanitarian efforts, social and economic development, etc.).  The League Covenant, vague as it was, put forth the concept of collective security asserting that any war or threat of war was “a matter of concern to the whole League”, and the League was charged with taking “any action that may be deemed wise and effectual to safeguard the peace of nations.”  It was appealing and controversial at the same time. 

The term “collective security” wasn’t actually coined until the mid-1920s, achieving mass popular usage and support by the mid-1930s.  The wartime pro-League movement had a passionate belief in the credibility and necessity of collective security.  They argued that states could covenant collectively to observe and enforce peaceful principles of international behavior, and combine their collectively overwhelming power to guarantee peace, thereby deterring potential aggressors and providing each other collective security.  At the time of World War I, these ideals held an immediate appeal.  And they found their leading sponsor in Woodrow Wilson, who crowned his program for a post-war peace – the Fourteen Points – with the League.

In his legendary Fourteen Points, Wilson discarded the traditional international system based on balance of power and advanced a new system based on ethnic self-determination.  He insisted that a peaceful international order could only be realized with the application of universal law, binding arbitration, and trust – not equilibrium, national self-interest, and force.  In an address made in January 1917, Wilson attacked the international order and maintained that:

The question upon which the whole future peace and policy of the

            world depends is this: Is the present war a struggle for a just and

secure peace, or only for a new balance of power?…There must be,

not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized       

rivalries, but an organized common peace.


In the new system peace and security would not depend on military alliances but on a universal world organization.  This proposition for “a general association of the nations” working within a new international system was met with mixed feelings at the peace conference.  Ultimately, however, Wilson would prevail in his effort to “recast a whole system of international relations as it had been practiced for nearly three hundred years.”[16]  A heady proposition, indeed. 

This is an important aspect of Wilson’s legacy.  That European statesmen, in an attempt to preserve stability after World War I, did abandon the traditional European approach of alliances and balance of power system to adopt the Wilsonian philosophy of collective security is a milestone in international relations.  Wilson’s concept of collective security assumed that all nations of the world assess threats or challenges in the same way—that ultimately they have the same overriding interest to preserve the peace—and that they are willing to reach identical conclusions about how to resist any such threat (whether it be to apply force or sanctions), denying their own particular interests in the matter at hand.  This was not a concept easily accepted by European statesmen.  Implicit in the traditional European approach to peaceful negotiation was the understanding that national interests were oftentimes at odds; therefore, the European powers used diplomacy (an important instrument of political order) to settle their differences and disputes, as well as, to realize their national interests.[17]

Wilson’s proposal of collective security deals in generalities.  No specific threat is defined, no specific commitments exist, no one nation is guaranteed, and no specific aggressor is identified.  Collective security responds to the violation of a legal norm by any country.  It is designed to defend the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes, to defend “international law in the abstract.”  Therefore action would be considered on a case-by-case basis by League members who have a common interest in keeping the peace.  This makes the League of Nations, in particular, and collective security, in general, unpredictable.  How its principles will be applied is left to interpretation as a need arises.  Traditional European alliances, however, dealt in specifics making commitments and outcomes more predictable.  There were specific obligations placed on specific countries regarding specific adversaries and threats.  Very little was left to interpretation, thus anticipated results could be determined. 

Wilson’s proposal was a radical change from the way Europe was used to conducting international affairs, so their skepticism was expected.  France in particular did not trust the League’s vague promise of security and pressured the U.S. for a guarantee to use force by proposing an international army be established under the League.  Wilson rejected this request proclaiming that

The only method…lies in our having confidence in the good faith of

the nations who belong to the League…when danger comes, we too will

come, but you must trust us.


As Kissinger aptly points out, “trust is not a commodity in abundant supply among diplomats.”[18]  While European statesmen had a difficult time digesting Wilson’s new world order, they acquiesced to his petition for a League in exchange for modification of his Fourteen Points.  And the only reason Wilson agreed to that was because he was certain that any justifiable grievance not addressed by the peace treaty would be resolved by the League.  In his view all the bases were covered with this agreement.  His revolutionary new world order was within reach, and whether enforced by the treaty or applied by the League his principles of peace, justice and self-determination would be established. 

One of the guiding principles established by League founders was a guarantee that members would undertake “to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all members of the League” (Article 10).  Additionally, under Article 16, diplomatic, economic, and eventually military sanctions would be used against a League member (or non-member) that turned to aggression in violation of the dispute resolution procedures listed in the Covenant.  Even though compliance would depend on how each member interpreted their own obligation in this endeavor, the collective security ideal had finally come to fruition, and supporters would see the guarantee of peace and security as the League’s primary purpose.

The first few years for the League were difficult.  With a complex and comprehensive Covenant, trying to be all things to all people, it went through an identity crisis.  From the beginning the major powers viewed their roles within the League and the principal role of the League differently.  While the British wanted to minimize security commitments, France wanted to emphasize them.  Additionally, the ambiguities of the League Covenant compounded the security problem.  Article 10 of the Covenant regarding the preservation of territorial integrity basically proclaimed that in the event of a breach the League of Nations would “agree to that on which it could agree.”[19]  Who needs this?  Certainly not the French who regularly expressed their frustration with the vague security commitments provided for in the League Covenant.  The point is no nation needed this Covenant to direct them to do what they would have done anyway—this is the void that traditional alliances had attempted to fill with specifics.

Another problem had to do with putting into practice Wilson’s universal principle of self-determination.  Because of the divisions of territories after the war (which was done in the name of self-determination) almost as many people ended up living under foreign rule as before the war.  This was particularly true of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania and Poland.  The presence of a large German minority in Czechoslovakia and Poland, as well as, the rejection of a united Austria and Germany violated the principle of self-determination.  British Prime Minister Lloyd George summed up the dilemma as follows:

I can not conceive any greater cause of future war than that the German

people…should be surrounded by a number of small states, many of

them consisting of people who have never previously set up a stable

government for themselves, but each of them containing large masses

of Germans clamouring for reunion with their native land.


Ultimately self-determination, the organizing principle of the Treaty of Versailles, supported German claims of trickery and discrimination,[20] compounding the demoralization and compunction of the democracies.  The victors did not share a sense of justice about the treaty they had created based on Wilsonian principles, thus, they lacked the will to enforce it, which in turn further weakened the capability of the League and prepared an unobstructed path for German rearmament.

After the first few years of groping in the dark, the League finally stabilized in the mid-1920s, with increased public support and Germany as a new member.  In 1929, however, optimism turned to pessimism with the October stock market collapse in the United States.  An international economic crisis quickly followed, with global diplomatic and political upheaval not far behind.  It would be Japan’s aggression against Manchuria in 1931 that would expose the fragile nature of collective security and prove the undoing of the League.  League members hesitated, reluctant to respond with either sanctions or force against Japan.  The member nations were not prepared or willing to enforce economic sanctions during a depression.  And they weren’t able to go to war with Japan, no matter how much they disapproved of Japan’s aggressive measures.  The League’s dilemma was insurmountable, thus, the course of action chosen by League members was inaction.  It took the form of the Lytton Commission which conducted an investigation into why Japan attacked and occupied Manchuria.  The study actually concluded that Japan had some justification, but should have exhausted all peaceful means to resolve its grievances.  And for this Japan withdrew from the League of Nations.  This was the beginning of the end for the League.

Then came the failure of the World Disarmament Conference in 1932, Hitler’s removal of Germany from the League in 1933, and the League’s inability and unwillingness to stop the rearmament of Germany by Hitler.  The League’s response was to focus on the importance of collective security (a classic case of symbolism over substance), which attracted powerful new interest and support.  In 1934 support came from the Soviet Union, which ended up joining the League and becoming a defender of collective security; and in 1935 the International Studies Conference devoted their discussions almost entirely to the topic of collective security, claiming that the ideal of collective security was essential to “international political evolution and moral progress.”  But the League would ultimately fail them.  It would fail its supporters and fail itself.

The great and final test for the League and its commitment to collective security came with the Italian aggression against the African kingdom of Abyssinia in the autumn of 1935.  The League’s attempt to implement a diplomatic strategy of collective security in conjunction with a secret diplomacy (the Hoare-Laval Pact), which betrayed both Abyssinia and the League’s commitment to collective security, was disastrous.  The successful Italian aggression was an embarrassment to the League.  It proved ineffective in stopping the military aggression that led to World War II.  The League’s failure in its quest for collective security serves to illustrate the limitations of international organization in a world dedicated to the doctrines of national sovereignty.

Ultimately collective security in the form of the League of Nations was doomed by what will eventually doom the effectiveness of the U.N.—the presumption that all nations have an equal interest in resisting a particular threat and are willing to take equal risks to oppose it.  After World War I the European leaders should have realized that this presumption was false.  But they also should have recognized that a general doctrine of collective security could never work as long as it excluded three of the most powerful nations of the world, the United States, Germany and the Soviet Union.  Not that it would have worked anyway.  The U.S. not joining the League of Nations did not wreck the Treaty of Versailles as so many have claimed.  While the U.S. decision to forgo commitment to the League contributed to French paranoia, it didn’t really change the outcome of events.  With America’s isolationist frame of mind at the time, it would not have made a difference if the U.S. had joined the League or not.  The U.S. still would not have agreed to use force to oppose aggression.

  While the League of Nations failed to prevent or act against the aggression that led to World War II, it had all along been cultivating its “functionalist” work, giving the League a new purpose.  It ceased its work during the war and dissolved on April 18, 1946.  The torch was passed to the United Nations which has assumed the League’s assets and attempts to fulfill the same idealistic mission of world peace that the League endeavored, but failed, to carry out.  If you define “keeping the peace” as preventing wars, as many have lately done, the U.N.’s record is beyond repair.  In the fifty-five years that the U.N. has operated there have been in excess of one-hundred wars (some accounts are as high as 200), with the U.N. Security Council authorizing two of them.  U.N. efforts and activities seem to focus less on collective security and more on collective humanitarianism and economic development. 




IV.   The Wilsonian Tradition in U.S. Foreign Policy : From Wilson to George W.


            The Wilson legacy of justifying American interventions with moral duty and not national interest is woven into the fabric of every foreign policy of every president who succeeded Wilson.  For each of these men altruism has been the underpinning of all American policy.  This is evident in FDR’s “Four Freedoms” – of speech and religion, from want and fear – for all the world, basically proclaiming the U.S. the champion and defender of free peoples everywhere.  It can also be seen in America’s Cold War policies (particularly in regard to Vietnam) of Truman, Ike, JFK, and LBJ.  Both the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan sought to “nurture free institutions.”  Truman spoke in traditional Wilsonian terms when he described the Cold War as a struggle between a “representative government” that allows “freedom from political oppression” and an autocratic government that uses “terror and oppression” to control the masses and “suppress personal freedoms.”  It was a contest between good and evil.  He further asserted that,

            In helping free and independent countries to maintain their freedom, the

            United States will be giving effect to the principles of the Charter of the

            United Nations.


Just as FDR rejected the balance of power and refused to justify American actions based on national-security interests, so did Truman:

            We have sought no territory. We have imposed our will on none. We have

asked for no privileges we would not extend to others…[Our goal is to] strengthen freedom-loving nations against the dangers of aggression…

And each succeeding president sang the same Wilsonian tune, claiming that America’s primary, unselfish goal was “universal peace and progress.”[21] 

Wilson’s altruism is apparent with Eisenhower’s policy to destroy the menace of despotism.  Eisenhower proclaimed that America had a moral responsibility to be a leader among nations in the quest for world peace and democracy:

            For history does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the


JFK took it a step further when he warned,


            Let every nation know…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.


Classic Wilsonianism.  It was a sweeping statement that wasn’t related to any specific national-security interest and could conceivably include any nation.  Regarding Vietnam, LBJ further committed the U.S. to an altruistic policy in 1965:

            Terrific dangers and troubles that we once called ‘foreign’ now con-

stantly live among us. If American lives must end, and American

treasure be spilled, in countries that we barely know, then that is the

price that change has demanded of conviction and of our enduring



The Vietnam policies of Ike, JFK, and LBJ reflect American missionary zeal combined with a globalist impulse.  Unfortunately, in the case of Vietnam intervention, they discovered that the ambition to promote freedom and spread democracy in a part of the world lacking a middle class and the ability to self govern was unattainable.  American idealism had overreached, creating a mess.  Richard Nixon would be the one designated to clean it up.

            Nixon was convinced that “an excess of Wilsonianism” got us into the mess, and it would take a return to a Hamiltonian policy of securing national interests to get us out.  He asserted that, “our interests must shape our commitments, rather than the other way around.”  Nixon’s return to Hamiltonian principles was not well received in America, although they did prove successful in U.S. diplomatic negotiations with Vietnam, as well as with China, and Russia.  Nixon was brilliant in conducting foreign affairs, understanding that a mixture of strategies must be used to solve the many international problems that existed.  But Wilsonian principles were well entrenched in the American psyche at that point and many believed he was out of step with the international trend.  The Nixon and Ford administrations were both attacked[22] for not applying Wilsonian principles more staunchly – for being too “traditionalist.”  Even so, like the presidents before him, Nixon had a streak of Wilsonian principle that is reflected in his policies regarding arms control, the promotion of Jewish emigration from Russia, the Middle East peace process, and the banning of biological warfare.

            And it is regarding the issue of Jewish emigration from Russia that we see Nixon’s “quiet diplomacy” replaced by legislative sanctions in 1974, making intervention into the domestic policies of other states an official (and, yes, popular) feature of U.S. foreign policy.  Wilsonianism was transformed by making overt pressure tactics an officially accepted and used method to uphold human rights.  Such previously abhorred policies were not just accepted now, but became expected in the name of human rights.  [It is important to note that through Nixon’s secret diplomatic efforts Jewish emigration from Russia rose from 400 in 1968 to 35,000 in 1973.  For several years after sanctions were applied, Jewish emigration actually decreased by 70%.]

More and more, foreign aid and relations was tied to human rights issues in the 1970s and ‘80s.  Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter each affirmed this Wilsonian principle in their actions and assertive rhetoric.  With Ford’s signing of the Final Act of the Helsinki Agreement in 1975,

human rights and fundamental freedoms became recognized subjects of

East-West discourse and negotiation.  The conference put forward our

standards of humane conduct, which have been—and still are—a beacon

of hope to millions.[23]


But it was Ronald Reagan who combined Wilsonian rhetoric and Hamiltonian tactics with a “crusading attack against a hostile ideology,” producing a policy that ultimately achieved results.  Reagan proclaimed that

America’s leadership in the world came to us because of our own strength

and because of the values which guide us as a society: free elections, a

free press, freedom of religious choice, free trade unions, and above all

freedom for the individual and rejection of the arbitrary power of the state. 

These values are the bedrock of our strength.[24]


Like Wilson, Reagan understood that Americans were inspired by their historic ideals, not geopolitical analysis.  He rejected Carter’s apologetic stance by defending America as “the greatest force for peace anywhere in the world today.”  He rode into the Cold War on a white horse crusading to convert “the evil empire.”  And he regarded human rights as a tool to defeat communism and democratize the USSR, and ultimately bring peace to the world. 

Over time promoting human rights had become a principal objective of American foreign policy and finally peaked with the Clinton administration.  From the end of the Cold War until September 11, 2001, the democracies of the world were lulled into a false sense of security believing that we had witnessed “the end of history.”  Thus, addressing security issues permanently took a backseat to human rights issues.  The newly adopted doctrine of humanitarian intervention maintained that no price is too great – in dollars or lives – to vindicate human convictions wherever they are being violated.  This doctrine was affirmed by the rhetoric of statesmen following the NATO operation in Kosovo.  British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated:

This war…was fought [so]…that every human being regardless of race,

religion or birth has an inalienable right to live free from persecution.


President Clinton tried to redefine the national interest in extreme Wilsonian terms.  He proclaimed that defending human rights and humane values, by force if necessary, was a basic principle of the American national interest – “that American values and interests [actually] reinforce each other.”  But intervention, humanitarian or otherwise, cannot be sustained if the public is not certain that the interests are worth the cost, in lives and economics.  This is exactly what was missing from the universal humanitarian interventions of the 1990s. 

Responses to humanitarian interventions by the international community varied, and risks on behalf of morality were limited.  However in each one of the interventions in the 1990s that the U.S. was involved in (Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo), the operations appeared fairly risk-free, national security wasn’t an issue, and Clinton’s policy was guided by intense domestic pressure to preserve human rights.  Interventions often took the form of military peace-keeping (an oxymoron) missions, as in Somalia initiated by President G.H.W. Bush and expanded to include nation-building by Clinton.  It was only when risks proved too great, as in Somalia, that interventions ended and troops were recalled. 

The NATO action taken and encouraged by the U.S. in Kosovo as opposed to the action not taken in Iraq in 1998 reveals the triumph of Wilsonianism over competing traditions in American foreign policy, as well as, its success in the world community.  The danger of Iraq controlling the Persian Gulf is considered a threat to American national security in the traditional sense.  UN weapons inspectors were forced out of Iraq in December 1998, a violation of the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire agreement, leaving its neighbors (many American allies and all suppliers of oil for the industrial democracies) vulnerable to Iraqi power.  The United Nations did not respond  (or you could say that their response was inaction).  Instead, the United States reacted promptly and unilaterally with Operation Desert Fox, a symbolic slap on the wrist consisting of four days of air attacks on Baghdad.  At the end of four days American polls reflected a negative public reaction; consequently, we retreated. 

Clinton’s quandary was that his motivation for the action against Iraq was grounded in selfish national interests, which actually defied his customary stance and rhetoric regarding America’s role as passive helpmate to our world partners.  Clinton was more concerned with public and international perception than with security.  While Clinton himself wanted to “take out” Saddam Hussein, he didn’t have the support of the international community or the American public.  Anyway, since this episode occurred Iraq has been allowed to, among other things, make a mockery of the United Nations.  For Clinton, and more importantly for the UN, Iraqi dominance in the Gulf region did not constitute a moral transgression that would justify a prolonged military response.  Three months later, however, in response to Serbian human rights violations in Kosovo, NATO under pressure from the Clinton administration bombed Yugoslavia non-stop for seventy-eight days.[25]  Once again Wilsonian principles prevailed where no threat to American national security existed. 

During Clinton’s two terms as president he set about to shed America’s bullying superpower status and be as one with the rest of the world.  It’s a typical socialist response.  You apply domestic policy to foreign policy.  At home, the state sets up a share-the-wealth program (to borrow from “the Kingfish”) and on the international front the superpower state spreads its power among all the nations of the world.  Feel the love.  In an attempt to verify America’s commitment to multilateralism, Clinton undermined previous administration’s efforts to restrict outside influence in settling problems in the Western Hemisphere when he invited the UN to participate in humanitarian intervention in Haiti in 1994.  He successfully circumvented the 1823 Monroe Doctrine and 1947 Rio Treaty, which established a collective security system for the Western Hemisphere—the OAS[26], by pursuing a policy that would increase the authority and legitimacy of the U.N. and weaken the U.S. superpower status

President Clinton regularly expressed his disdain for balance of power politics and U.S. ascendancy by making public apologies for the U.S. role in perpetuating (if not initiating) the Cold War.  With Wilsonian zeal Clinton self-righteously rejected the reality of history and created a policy devoid of strategic issues and a traditional view of national security.[27]  Operating under the false assumption that the world had reached “the end of history,” Wilsonian idealism kicked into high gear with Clinton’s China policy.  Clinton’s policies were increasingly guided by domestic issues that included humanitarian intervention and the promotion and defense of democracies around the world.  The Westphalian principle of non-interference was sucked into the vortex when, after Clinton granted China temporary MFN status contingent on future human rights progress, Nancy Pelosi suggested that U.S. congressional legislation could somehow force China to allow freedoms (of the press and speech) which have “never existed in five millennia of Chinese history.”  This was an expression of growing public opinion, though, in Western Europe and the U.S.  Strobe Talbott elaborated on the policy of interference stating that America would be safer by spreading democracy “since democracies are…less likely to make war on each other.”[28] A typical Wilsonian attitude.

While President G.W. Bush has expressed his own policy in Wilsonian terms (best seen in his desire to “liberate” Iraq), he has also returned to a Hamiltonian posture.  Bush is not embarrassed by American might as Clinton was, nor is he overly concerned with world opinion of our motives:

And all nations should know: America will do what is necessary to

ensure our nation’s security…I will not wait on events, while dangers

gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer.


Although his tough talk resembles that of Reagan, particularly when, over a year ago, he named Iraq as part of “the axis of evil,” he is not as idealistic as Reagan.  Bush knows that the ideological and political “monsters” he faces today cannot be converted; they must be overtaken.  He believes that a world in which a dominant America exercises its power will be a more peaceful world…because the U.S. is “a country filled with goodness.”  His mixture of Wilsonian and Hamiltonian principles are a welcome relief (secretly, for many) from the apologetic wimpering of the 1990s:

            While the price of freedom and security is high, it is never too high.

            whatever it costs to defend our country, we will pay…It is both our

            responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom’s fight.





V.   The Twenty-First Century


The United States will play the determining role in the new world order of the twenty-first century.  But the responsibility of the future order does not lie solely with the lone superpower.  The United Nations, successor of the League of Nations, has (or had) an opportunity to legitimize the concept of collective security and play an important role in the new global system.  It will ultimately be the decision of the individual members as to whether the UN will take advantage of the opportunity laid before it.  The hard-line strategy against future threats to world peace adopted by President Bush is not an attempt to establish hegemony or a unilateral response, but is in fact an opportunity for the UN to step up to the plate and assume its responsibility in the new world order.  If the UN does not have the stomach for implementing methods of “tough love” that is laid out in its own charter, then it will render itself irrelevant.  I am of the opinion that it has already achieved this.

Just as Napoleon III was convinced of the wisdom of inaction, which ultimately led to the unification of Germany in 1871, so do some members of the U.N. Security Council favor inaction regarding Iraq’s non-compliance with the decrees established by the authority of the United Nations organization.  For many of the statesmen contemplating the complexities of their decision, unable to choose a definitive course of action, prudence has become their alibi.  Statesmen have a responsibility to resolve difficulty, not brood over it.  The true test of a statesman is whether he can accurately identify the long-term interests of his country and formulate an appropriate policy for achieving them.  Since this runs counter to the whole concept of collective security the attempt by the UN to prove itself relevant in today’s world will not be easy.

Institutions, such as the U.N., are not independent political entities that sit above states and force them to behave in acceptable ways.  Instead, institutions are sets of rules that stipulate the ways in which states should cooperate and compete with each other.  They prescribe acceptable and proscribe unacceptable forms of behavior.  These rules are not imposed on states by some leviathan, but are negotiated by the states themselves.  Idealists believe that these institutions or rules can fundamentally change state behavior.  Institutions, so the argument goes, can discourage states from calculating self-interest on the basis of how their every move affects their relative power position and, thus, promote peace.[29]  It’s a beautiful thing.  Obviously idealists are optimists, while realists tend to be pessimists when it comes to international cooperation.  It is not that realists don’t want peace, they do.  But they can’t close their eyes, click their heels and chant “give peace a chance” and make the harsh reality of security competition and war disappear. 

In the end, collective security fell prey to the weakness of its central premise – that all nations have the same interest in resisting a threat and are prepared to run identical risks opposing it.  Experience has shown these assumptions to be false.  No act of aggression has ever been defeated by applying the principle of collective security.  Either the world community has refused to assess the act as one which constituted aggression, or it has disagreed over the appropriate sanctions.  And when sanctions were applied, they inevitably reflected the lowest common denominator, often proving so ineffectual that they did more harm than good.  It is only on the rarest occasion when an extreme threat develops that a consensus is reached, as it was in WWI, WWII and on a regional basis in the Cold War.  In the vast majority of cases where threats to “the peace” surface, the nations of the world have a tendency to disagree either about the nature of the threat or about the risk they are prepared to take to oppose it.  The conditions necessary for the effective implementation of collective security are not very likely to ever exist.  It is an idealistic theory that has very little chance of achieving practice.[30]

So, even though Woodrow Wilson has achieved immortality with the continued pursuit of applying universal principles under the auspices of collective security, world peace remains elusive.  Centralizing international authority in a supranational organization in and of itself will never guarantee that states will enforce the laws or norms established by the collective security arrangement.  The honor code doesn’t work here.  Enforcement and compliance can only be guaranteed when the costs of abandoning the organization’s authority outweigh the costs of adhering to it.  And while an arrangement of collective security cannot satisfy every member of the international system completely, neither can a balance of power arrangement.  Neither of these systems is a natural form of international relations.  Balance-of-power systems have been rare in history and collective security is a recent creation.  For most peoples of the world and for the longest periods of time in human history, empire has been the most common form of government.  Empires are not interested in participating within an international system, and they don’t need to maintain a balance of power.  The dilemma of empires, however, is that every problem encountered becomes a domestic issue and, eventually the issues are no longer relative to the historic domestic experiences, which in turn intensifies internal struggles and leads to violence.

So where does this leave the U.S. in its quest for a policy that will create a realistically ideal international order?  The key to America’s success in applying universal principles to a world comprised of nations with differing historical developments is its ability to discern between its obligations, its aspirations, and what will ultimately be its frustrations.[31]  The ultimate goal for any statesman is to find that delicate balance between values and interests, between idealism and realism.   As Margaret Thatcher points out, “common sense must always temper moral zeal.”  While statecraft should include moral principles, it must not be “stifled” by them.  Such principles should be “clothed in armor” as well as “good intentions.”[32] 

President Bush is attempting to reach that delicate balance as we speak.  He is doing everything he can to uphold the authority and preserve the relevance of the United Nations (still, bless his heart) without turning his back on the national interest and security of the United States.  It’s a daunting task, but his administration seems up to the challenge.  If Bush truly deemed collective security, in general, and the UN, in particular, irrelevant, the U.S. would have acted unilaterally in the war against terror and in our clash with Saddam Hussein.  But Bush understands the need for the world community to work in unison to accomplish certain goals, particularly to fight against the new challenge of terrorism.   He demonstrated this awareness after the September 11th attacks by resisting a knee-jerk response of immediate military strikes against known terrorist centers.  Instead he built a broad-based global coalition that legitimized the use of military force against state-supported terrorism.  Bush stated, “we make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”  The strategic objective was clear: eliminate state havens.  For without a safe haven, the terrorists become outlaws and are ultimately disabled. 

September 11, 2001 basically turned the world order on its head.  It shattered the illusion for many idealists that the end of the Cold War did not in fact bring about “the end of history.”  A hard lesson was taught (although I’m not sure it’s been wholly learned) that it is not democracy that the terrorists oppose.  It isn’t the means by which we operate our society they disapprove of, it is the end that they abhor.  It is (what appears to them to be) the slothful, amoral nature of a society that disrespects its own freedom by shirking its responsibility to uphold it that they fear and hate. [33] (That is your cue to ponder the 1990s under the Clinton administration).  This reality flies in the face of the Wilsonian belief, which has been applied to our foreign policy since its installation by Woodrow Wilson himself, that spreading democracy around the world will bring about peace.  The two are not linked so easily and simplistically.  National security-interests have taken a backseat long enough. 

While Bush’s rhetoric may be salty, no one should be surprised by it because it is classic American.  We have spent the majority of the 1990s listening to anti-American, peacenik rhetoric coming out of the White House that we don’t even recognize ourselves anymore.  George W. Bush is a truer reflection of our historical presence than Clinton ever was.  But propaganda is so easily absorbed when repeated often enough.  And while one man’s truism is another man’s propaganda, you can’t deny the historical truth that twenty-first-century America has become that balance between realism and idealism.  No other great power in human history has ever attempted to successfully temper its own power, yet continue to prioritize its own national interests while focusing on the betterment of global humanity.  While in recent history we have had short periods of trying to shirk our responsibility through diminishing our own power, as in the late 1970s and throughout most of the 1990s, these are aberrations in how Americans characterize themselves.

In the final analysis it will not be simply how others perceive the U.S., but how the U.S. perceives itself that will determine the future of the international order.  Reactions to U.S. power and dominance—like the formation of the European Union, the Russo-Chinese “partnership”, Mercosur, and the attempt to increase UN authority—are natural and inevitable.  The U.S. should not, however, forgo its superpower status and set aside its own national interest to placate and conform.  The future of global stability depends on the leadership of the United States.  But it also depends on the U.S. exercising humility and restraint in its preeminence, soothing the egos of and clearing the way for other nations to cooperate in a partnership to create an international order founded in the principles of freedom and democracy. 

America’s ultimate challenge is to transform its power into moral consensus,

promoting its values not by imposition but by their willing acceptance in a world

that, for all its seeming resistance, desperately needs enlightened leadership.[34]







A Final Word…


“If we can keep [the inspectors] in there working and one more time give [Saddam] a chance to become honorably reconciled by simply observing UN resolutions, we see that results can be obtained.”  Can you guess who said that and when?  No, it wasn’t Jacques Chirac, and it wasn’t last week or last month, or even last year.  It was uttered by then President Clinton in November 1998, just weeks before UNSCOM was removed from Iraq.  How many “last chances” do you think that the U.N. was going to give Saddam Hussein?  None of our allies in the Persian Gulf region believed “results could be obtained” through inspections in 1998 and they didn’t believe it when Hans Blix gave his report to the U.N. Security Council last month.  Since 1993, Saddam Hussein has consistently undermined the U.N. cease-fire agreement that ended the Gulf War.  And Clinton’s mealy-mouth policy of hollow threats exacerbated the problem.  When he finally did use force on December 16, 1998, it was too little too late.  Once the U.N. inspections were undermined, economic sanctions were eroded.  How did the U.N. respond?  You know the answer.  Throughout the 1990s Saddam Hussein, with the U.N.’s unwitting complicity, has successfully divided the coalition of member nations and made a mockery of the U.N.[35] After a decade of appeasement it is not Saddam Hussein that is perceived by the “world community” to be a threat to the Gulf region, but the U.S.

With the new inspections begun in November 2002, which by the way took place because Bush approached the U.N. with his concerns about Saddam and pointed out the U.N.’s failure to implement their own resolutions, Hans Blix has been responsible to give periodic reports to the Security Council.  Excepting the first, each report has revealed that Saddam has been in compliance with Resolution 1441 “in process” but not “in substance,” i.e., there has been a lot of paper shuffling but little to no new revelations regarding WMD.  Each time this was translated by most UNSC members as a need to continue inspections—a clear indication that the U.N.’s bureaucratic instincts take precedence over its responsibility to live up to its own commitments.  Just as Saddam Hussein cannot be trusted to comply with U.N. resolutions, neither can the U.N. Security Council be trusted to live up to the expectations of its own Charter.  As Winston S. Churchill, former Parliamentarian and grandson of Prime Minister Churchill, stated a week ago, “It is all well and good to have international law, but at the end of the day someone has to enforce it…” President Bush said last Monday, March 17th, that it is not about if the U.S. is “authorized” to take action. “It’s about will. Do we have the will to fulfill our obligation?”  Our will is matched only by Saddam’s.  But we also have the authority.  I refer to the authority that the Gulf War cease-fire agreement gave us if Saddam did not comply.  And he did not comply.  So you have to ask yourself, which is riskier – passivity or action? (Do you feel lucky, punk?)  Passivity leads to vulnerability.  According to Tony Blair, “to continue with strong talk and weak actions is the worst course we can take.”[36]  While I would like to ask Prime Minister Blair what course of action he was taking during the 1990s, I’ll have to leave that for another day.  

Finally, I feel that I must respond to the rant, regarding President Bush’s “failed diplomacy,” made by the armchair diplomat Senator Daschle.  Diplomacy failed because terrorists do not respond to diplomacy.  All that they understand is force.  That is why inspections were not and never would be effective.  It is not Bush who failed but the U.N.  The U.N. failed in its responsibility to uphold collective security.  It is surprising to me that the U.N. Security Council did not understand this.  In fact I believe that they did understand, but they did not respond appropriately for two reasons: 1) they are a bureaucracy—a fact which in and of itself creates paralysis and indecisiveness; and, more importantly, 2) national interests among individual member states in this particular situation (and so many others) differed and were significant.  Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed his frustrations with the U.N.’s “defensive crouch” during his presentation to the U.N. Security Council on February 5th.  As he made his case that Saddam was in “material breach” of U.N. requirements, he said that the “U.N. is irrelevant if it allows Iraq to obstruct.”  He was right, but even so, just yesterday Powell spoke of a post-Saddam Iraq under the direction of the U.N.  While the U.S. is still extending a hand to the U.N. (only to have it slapped down repeatedly), as a collective security arrangement, it is done.  Stick a fork in it.   

[1] Kissinger, Henry, Diplomacy.

[2] Prior to WWI, European states typically faced possible threats with counterthreats. 

[3] Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Mme. La Duchesse D’Auville, April 2, 1790.

[4] Kissinger, Diplomacy.

[5] ibid.

[6] Kissinger, Does America Need A Foreign Policy?

[7] Most early American statesmen attributed Europe’s many wars to a lack of freedom and democratic institutions. One statesman who did not support this theory was Alexander Hamilton.

[8] Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson.

[9] Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Joseph Priestly, June 19, 1802.

[10] My emphasis.

[11] Kissinger, Does America Need a Foreign Policy?  My emphasis.

[12] Mearsheimer, John J., The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

[13] Kissinger, Diplomacy.

[14] ibid.

[15] Wilson refused to compromise on the guarantees and security obligations of the Covenant, leading the congress to reject it.

[16] Kissinger, Diplomacy.

[17] Wilson dismissed this reasoning and claimed international disharmony was more likely the result of “clouded thinking.”

[18] Kissinger, Diplomacy.

[19] It rather reminds me of the Kellogg-Briand Pact which agreed to preserve the peace as long as the peace was being preserved.

[20] The Mandate Principle and the War Guilt Clause of the Treaty primarily contributed to such claims.

[21] This is not to imply that national-security interests were of no concern, for they were. This is just to say that the presidents of the twentieth century didn’t want the U.S. to appear to be a selfish, overbearing bully. They were deeply concerned that the U.S. was perceived to have “imperialistic designs” (Reagan). In order to prove to the world that their intentions were good, their rhetoric and actions became extreme. This occurred from Truman to George W.  “Me thinks thou doth protest too much…”

[22] It was easy to do so after Watergate.

[23] Kissinger, Diplomacy.

[24] Kissinger, Does America Need A Foreign Policy?

[25] Of course you have to ask yourself why Kosovars  were referred to as “freedom fighters” and Chechnyans were called “rebels.”

[26] The Organization of American States (OAS) is the prescribed organization to resolve such problems.

[27] He rejected the fact that from Truman to Bush “41”, the U.S. government had believed that they were in a struggle to preserve national security and U.S. values.

[28] Kissinger, Does America Need A Foreign Policy?

[29] Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

[30] Goodby, James, Can Collective Security Work?

[31] Kissinger, Does America Need A Foreign Policy.

[32] Thatcher, Margaret, Statecraft: Strategies For A Changing World.

[33] Glenn Beck.

[34] Kissinger, Does America Need A Foreign Policy.

[35] Of course, there is nothing unwitting about France’s complicity.

[36] Tony Blair, House of Commons, 3/18/03.