Thursday, November 30, 2006

Here's something interesting I just read; and it is bound to fluster some of my more ideological readers, be they right or left.

Nonpartisan, the guiding spirit at Progressive Historians, which Cliopatria's avuncular Dr. Ralph Luker called " A sort of Daily Kos for the historical set" has posted a ringing defense of Woodrow Wilson and Wilsonianism from a progressive perspective:

"Woodrow Wilson to historians: Stop lying about my record! "

"That's it. I'm sick and tired of people unfairly maligning Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy. I'm tired of people like John Lewis Gaddis calling Wilson's foreign policy "Fukuyama plus force." (That's the same Francis Fukuyama, if you didn't know, who declared American hegemony the beneficent and permanent result of "The End of History.) And I'm particularly fed up with people like Tufts professor Tony Smith calling Bush's imperialism Wilsonian:

The repeated assertions by President George W. Bush since 2002 that the national security of the United States depends on the spread of democratic government to the Middle East qualifies to make the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 a Wilsonian undertaking.
Woodrow Wilson was NOT a neocon (though his predecessor and sometime opponent, Theodore Roosevelt, was). He was not an imperialist. The differences are subtle but critical; they have to do with how Wilson viewed America and now the neocons view it. And some people could stand to get a clue.

....Wilson's America, the one I believe in, was exceptional and unique, but not because the American race or country deserved to be supreme. Rather, America was a vehicle for one of the greatest ideas in the history of the world: democracy. America was beautiful, but democracy was sublime. America only mattered, in Wilson's view, insofar as it could assist in the spread of democracy to the world.
This may sound like a neocon position, but it isn't. Neocons switch the two priorities and declare America the supreme goal of the world, with democracy as its mechanism. The result is the narrowest kind of nationalism, blind support of American supremacy at whatever cost. This can include toppling popularly elected regimes like that of Hugo Chavez because they subvert American ends. Or banning the crack trade and thus putting the desires of American social conservatives over the need for Colombia's elected government to defund murderous Marxist rebels. Or supporting an unelected dictator like Pervez Musharraf because he abets American hegemony. Or pulling out of international treaties like Kyoto and the International Criminal Court because they try to treat Americans equally. Or -- most notably of all -- de-funding the UN because we disagree with its priorities.

When Wilson wanted to bring America into the League of Nations in 1919, it was the paleocons like Henry Cabot Lodge who brought down the idea and the President. Sure, nutty isolationists like Hiram Johnson and William Borah were its most vocal critics; but it was Lodge and his confreres who shot down the League of Nations, the bilateral security treaty with France, and the International Criminal Court -- all because of a desire for worldwide American hegemony -- and then lamely signed a no-more-war treaty with France (yeah, that big enemy of ours) nine years later

Read Nonpartisan's post in full.

Provocative and debatable.

Theodore Roosevelt, of whom I am a qualified admirer, was a nationalist and at times an imperialist but he would not have been a neoconservative, despite Bill Kristol's affinity for "national greatness conservatism". T.R. was very much a progressive at home, at times moreso than was Wilson, particularly on racial questions, an issue that carried over into foreign affairs with Japan and China. While Roosevelt was a gung-ho militarist, he strived to prevent a general war from breaking out amongst the great powers in his diplomatic efforts and in doing so, tilted against the interests of autocratic states like Imperial Germany and Tsarist Russia. States, T.R. correctly perceived as potential threatening to peace and unadmirable in their political systems. Roosevelt was, far and away, a more effective diplomat than was Wilson, though Wilson's visionary ideas of national self-determination, democracy promotion and a League of Nations made the greater longitudinal impact on the world stage.

Given Wilson's record in Mexico, I find the idea of Wilson chumming up to Hugo Chavez a stretch. If anything, it would be Chavez and Pancho Villa who would be knocking back tequilas together if the latter were alive today. On the other hand, I think Nonpartisan is right on Wilson's motivations regarding democracy and America's role in world affairs. Wilson was an intellectual and approached the world through a prism of abstractions.

While I understand Nonpartisan's partisan motivation in casting out the neocons as apostates in the Wilsonian Church, and his description fits for some of them, it doesn't fit for all of them. For those neoconservatives for whom the intent to plant democracy in Iraq was sincere, that idea is firmly in the Wisonian tradition of teaching South American republics to " elect a few good men".

Reader thoughts ?
I wish I knew more about Wilson. He is used as a symbol all the time. I have a couple of books about him that I have not read yet. He is a major figure who is obscured by the "-ism" he founded.
Wilson's 14 points strike me more as a nationalist version of Westphalianism than an ode to democracy. Being against Empire doesn't make one for a better system of governance.
Well! He's told us the answer, I guess. The only analytical device he did not use WAS CAPITAL LETTERS.

And, you know, those little things like logic, evidence, etc.

This will be convincing for those who believe that firm assertions are enough.

But a few quotes from Wilson would be nice. Or analysis by one of his biographers, or a few historians. Just to dress it up.

As to thesis, I remain convinced that Bush is well in the Wilsonian tradition. I would like to see discussion on this from experts!
Hi Lex, Dan, Fabius

Wilson set titanic forces in motion with his 14 Points.

I'm pretty sure from the Versailles conference that Wilson meant "self-determination" for Eastern Europeans like the Czechs and Poles. "Self-determination" for say, Vietnamese or African villagers was a thing altogether different.

However, a lot of historical figures enunciate visions of greater power as an ideal than they themselves can personally live up to ( case in point - Jefferson). Wilson legitimized the further spread of nationalism whether he wished to or no by getting a toehold for it into international law by using it as one yardstick for evaluating a state's legitimacy.

Once that was done, it was hardly possible to prevent figures like Ho Chi Minh or Nasser or whomever from appealing to it or using it very effectively against Wilson's other cherished concept, democracy. Castro, Assad, the senile jackass in Zimbabwe and their NGO cheerleaders in the West all do so today.
the problem isn't whether wilson was a neo con or whether someon for american internationalism is an imperialist. the probelm as I see it is the deification of the leader at the expense of the natural rights of ALL citizens. "wise" rulers historicly, have often been worse than incompetent ones. thousands died under Lincoln, how many died under Harding?

presidential powers should be massivly limited as there is very little of value for them to do
"Wilson set titanic forces in motion with his 14 Points. ... however, a lot of historical figures enunciate visions of greater power as an ideal than they themselves can personally live up to."

Great observation; wish I'd said that.

Still, I find it easy to imagine that Wilson would have supported our "intervention" in Iraq. It was easily as foolish as his taking us into WWI when the participants were exhausted, giving the War another bust of energy. Not ot mention his other misguided and ill-fated foreign adventures.

For a nice summary of Wilson's foreign policy, one of our worst Presidents, see
I was always under the impression that Bush and Wilson were different for the simple reason that Wilson was an Internationalist. Both maybe wanted to promote "self-determination/democracy", but Bush would do it through novel "coalitions of the willing." Hence Fukyama's term "realist Wilsonianism." It isn't "Fukuyama with force" but "Wilsonianism with self-interest."
A good place to understand Progressives like Wilson is to read Herbert Croly's "The Promise of American Life", a very dense impact book that had a profound influence on many like Wilson. The bulk of the book is focused on the role the government should have in rationalizing Society and the economy but there is a chapter on America's role in the world that is very telling when it comes to understanding Wilsonianism. Croly and his protoge, Walter Lippmann, had considerable impact on the thinking within the Wilson administrtion. Read the editorials of the New Republic at this time, especially those of 1916 when Wilson was pubically saying he was "too proud to fight".
Hey everyone,

Thank you Fabius, much appreciated. I think you and lester have arrived at the same normative judgment of Woodrow Wilson. I find him to be a very mixed bag -along the lines of Nixon and LBJ.

Neat distinction YH. Fukuyama's book "State Building" comes to mind.

Crost is spot on about Croly. And the Lippmann connection. Thank you for bringing that one up.

Another book in that era, sort of an Atlas Shrugged for Progressives but more juvenile, Philip Dru, Administrator by Colonel House, Wilson's alter ego.
A fascinating discussion. Thank you, ZenPundit, for featuring my piece here.

In response to Fabius, I must protest that my intent with this piece was to provide a visceral reaction to the Wilson commentary I've recently seen -- commentary that, in many cases, was backed up by no more analysis by the "experts" than is mine. It was not my intent to write a well-researched, scholarly disagreement with Gaddis, Nye, et al. Such a piece would be more appropriate for a scholarly journal, not a blog.

I also have to disagree with ZenPundit's assertion that my separation of Wilson from Bush and his Neocons is rooted in partisan polemic. This belief on my part isn't a result of my partisan leanings; it runs far deeper, and is in fact one of the bases for my partisan identification. I consider myself a Crolian Progressive, an attitude that falls somewhere between the Democrats and Republicans in political philosophy. I reject the neocons because I believe they pervert Wilson's desire to "make the world safe for democracy."

Also in response to ZenPundit, I would say that there was no way for Wilson to support Villa even had he wanted to. Villa was a purely regional power who got by more on his wiles and charisma than on the wings of a populist army. Like Ahmed Chalabi, Villa's best hope was to emerge as the leader of a coalition government after snarling things so much that no one else could unite the warring factions. On the other hand, Wilson's militant opposition to Huerta, while betraying a distinctly cavalier approach to border sovereignty (yes, a neocon leaning), indicates a laudable opposition to the depredations of unelected dictators. Wilson's truce with Carranza, grudging as it was, flew in the face of militant opposition to the Mexican leader by Roosevelt and others, and evinces a willingness on Wilson's part to stand up for democratically-elected leaders, even those with which he disagreed. This doesn't mean of course that Wilson would have supported Saddam, but I suspect he would have been fairly dubious about striking at the elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Finally, I would warn against judging me by the modern political caricatures associated with the moniker "Daily Kos of the historical set" which was so graciously bestowed upon my site by Ralph Luker. While I will admit to a visceral distrust and dislike of George Bush -- a sentiment shared by many professional academics -- my views are not easily pigeonholed into the modern partisan schema.
Hi Nonpartisan,

Welcome ! It was a good post on your part as it stirred a nice historical debate and had readers from across the spectrum thinking.

Clarification: I meant " partisan" in the sense of being pro-Wilsonian not as in Democratic vs. GOP. I was unclear, sorry.
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