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The Bitter Fruits of Wilsonianism

“By their fruits you will know them,” is a self-evident and reasonable standard by which to judge a policy or political doctrine. Given the more-often-than-not wilted fruits the foreign-policy doctrine of internationalism has borne forth, it is surprising that it is still so widely promoted, especially by former government officials who have seen firsthand its limitations. This idea, rooted in the Wilsonian urge to make the world “safe for democracy” in the aftermath of World War I, has become an article of faith, regardless of its actual real-world consequences. Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 2014 to 2017, recently wrote [1]:

The desire to help those struggling abroad gain the freedoms enjoyed here at home has remained a uniquely unifying force in American politics. Over the years, Democratic internationalists have found common cause with Republican anti-communists, who’ve aligned with liberal Amnesty International volunteers, who’ve sided with conservative church groups sponsoring refugees and fighting human trafficking, behind the belief that the United States should promote something beyond its immediate self-interest.

Malinowski is correct in stating that “the desire to help those struggling abroad gain the freedoms enjoyed here at home” has been shared by both Democrats and Republicans; presidents from both parties have intervened throughout the world over the past half-century, often when no American security interests were at stake. Of course, this was done in order to “promote something beyond [the United States’] immediate self-interest.”

Malinowski then goes on to state that “traditionally, U.S. presidents have used their farewell addresses to bolster this [internationalist] vision,” although by “traditionally,” he could only mean the past few presidents. Of course, there is another line of foreign-policy thinking, perhaps more traditional than internationalist. Enunciated [2] best by John Quincy Adams, this view makes the following claim of the United States:

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. 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. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

Internationalists find fault with this line of thinking, believing that it was the U.S. failure to promote democratic values and build a rules-based world order that led to the horrors of World War II. Malinowski surmises this view as arguing that “building up the military and defending the homeland, not wasting America’s strength abroad, would safeguard its freedom.” But the idea that the alternative to internationalism is a sort of global chaos caused by American isolationism is just not true; countries can interact with each other on the basis of realism and the balance of power and still maintain the peace, as was the case in Europe between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I. In the absence of a global policeman, new equilibriums and paradigms of stability would come about, filling the vacuum.

The irony, of course, is from the get-go, internationalism created more problems than it solved. To begin with, Wilson insisted [3] on regime change in Germany as the price for peace; the end result was the abdication of the Kaiser and the transformation of a highly functional state into the chaotic Weimar Republic, which of course was hijacked by the Nazi Party after a decade. By acquiescing in the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, Wilson did nothing to strengthen world peace, but instead created dozens of small states (i.e. Czechoslovakia) that were either dysfunctional or prone to be dominated by larger neighbors, thus requiring exterior protection. Thus, in the name of internationalism, the roots of World War II were laid, and the chaos is still continuing in the Middle East.

One hardly need to describe the various occasions throughout the 20th century, in places like Iran, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, in which promoting something beyond the United States’ “immediate self-interest” didn’t go quite as planned. On the other hand, when the United States restrained itself in the name of self-interest, as Eisenhower did with Hungary in 1956, or actively pursued closer relations with a power with different values out of self-interest, as Nixon did with China in 1972, the results were positive: no blood or treasure spilled, while American interests were served.

So what is more destabilizing and threatening to peace and security: not interfering in the internal affairs of other states, or U.S. efforts to promote liberal democracy and American values throughout the world? Can America be a great power that can deploy force in the world when its interests are at stake without the Wilsonian hubris?

The answer is yes.

The American order is already showing major strains after a mere 70 years, whereas the world order maintained by the previous global hegemon, Great Britain, lasted much longer. This was because, as Henry Kissinger pointed out [3] in his book Diplomacy, the British understood the notion of a balance of power, and pursued a strategy in favor of its preservation for over two centuries, rather than a strategy of open-ended alliances.

The British Empire, though it promoted liberalism and markets, rarely intervened in foreign places to set up liberal regimes. On the contrary, the British supported various native monarchs and traditional political norms in their colonies, and rarely tried to remake societies in their image. For example, British interference in the social and religious lives of their colonial subjects, in places that today form the modern countries of Iraq and Pakistan, was [4] relatively light, despite the fact that the British had the power to attempt to force social change, had they wanted to. Later attempts by the United States to promote from certain “universal values” in those and other societies proved to be mostly exercises in futility, a waste of effort and money.

If, following the British, the United States pursued a balance of power strategy, relations would improve with countries like Russia, China, and Iran, as may of the tensions between the United States and those countries stem from either U.S. pressure to remake the political structures of those states or U.S. infringement on those states’ perceived spheres of influence. A different paradigm would reduce overall tensions throughout the global order, because the ambitions of rising powers would no longer be constantly running up against American-imposed constraints.

Although the British did not remake their colonies in their image, they remained a global power for several centuries by picking their battles (for the most part), co-opting colonial elites, and by controlling key locations around the world, such as the Suez Canal, the Strait of Aden, and the Strait of Malacca. This goes to show that a country’s global position can be maintained by deploying military forces in a few important locations, rather than everywhere.

America’s economic and geopolitical interests can be guaranteed by taking a leaf from the British book. None of the following requires any sort of Wilsonian schemes. As I have argued elsewhere [5], this could involve:

(1) maintaining American forces near key chokepoints, such as the Gulf of Hormuz and the Malacca Straits to ensure the freedom of the seas; (2) shoring up relations with close allies in prosperous and free rimland of western Europe and East Asia that give the international system global staying power; and (3) only using force to prevent any power from using armed force to seize enough territory and resources to threaten the world order.

It is not inevitable that American leaders and politicians forego this sort of realist thinking and cleave to Wilsonianism. Inspiration can be garnered from Theodore Roosevelt, a contemporary of Wilson, who certainly thought along realist lines regarding the role of the United States in the world. Roosevelt said [6]: “If I must choose between a policy of blood and iron and one of milk and water…I am for the policy of blood and iron. It is better not only for the nation but in the long run for the world.”

According [3] to Henry Kissinger, writing in Diplomacy, “in Roosevelt’s conception, America would have been one nation among many–more powerful than most and part of an elite group of great powers–but still subject to the historic ground rules of equilibrium.”

Regardless of whether or not one believes in internationalism, the era of American hegemony is clearly drawing to an end—though the United States will remain a great power. Now is a good time to outgrow the dangerous, failed Wilsonian ideology that we can longer afford to maintain, and instead adapt the now timely and relevant views of Theodore Roosevelt and the lessons of the British Empire. Kissinger wistfully noted [7] that Roosevelt was a “century too early…no significant school of American foreign policy has invoked him since.” The good news is that Roosevelt’s time has now come.

Continued adherence to Wilsonian norms only sets the United States up for continued disappointment as such an ideology compels the U.S. to pursue goals it cannot possibly achieve. But by understanding and mastering realist geopolitical notions and the balance of power between nations, the United States can remain both secure and a great power for a very long time.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. He also writes for The National Interest and The Diplomat.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "The Bitter Fruits of Wilsonianism"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 30, 2017 @ 11:22 pm

I now reject that democracy promotion has been sincere. Rather it has been the public fig leave to cover the real motives behind empire building. Wilson cynically practiced Great Game international power politics. The opportunity arose to profit mightily by intervening on one side without risk, and gain spoils without effort from the exhausted Europeans. War was seen as profitable for American commerce, without risk of destruction in the homeland, as occurred in Europe. When we speak of Veterans of Foreign Wars, we have to ask, what other kind are there anymore?

It has not been about defending either democracy or the homeland within living memory, and yet the wars for profit have become continuous and unending – they are won, in the sense of contributing to elite wealth, only as long as they never cease. In terms of revenue streams, the end to war is corporate defeat.

#2 Comment By Ted W On March 31, 2017 @ 8:22 am

What an oddly rosy view of British colonialism. The author completely glosses over the British influence in creating the modern Middle East, the division of India and in East Africa. Literally three of the world’s worst conflicts arguably started with heavy handed British imperialism.

As for the other argument, that Britain’s Empire lasted longer, well, last I checked our “realist” President wants to increase the size of our Navy by a hundred ships. Geerts lost, LePen will likely lose. Russia is a paper tiger and China is historically timid. The American Empire still lacks for real international challengers, it’s demise is not imminent.

#3 Comment By Peter Linton On March 31, 2017 @ 12:50 pm

“The British supported various native monarchs and traditional political norms in their colonies, and rarely tried to remake societies in their image.” ~ That is a highly dubious claim & does not rely on the testimony of those colonized…

#4 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 31, 2017 @ 1:24 pm

“(1) maintaining American forces near key chokepoints, such as the Gulf of Hormuz and the Malacca Straits to ensure the freedom of the seas; (2) shoring up relations with close allies in prosperous and free rimland of western Europe and East Asia that give the international system global staying power; and (3) only using force to prevent any power from using armed force to seize enough territory and resources to threaten the world order,”

I think this would be a great first step. Rome was not built in a day, and it won’t be unbuilt in one either.

The US should first pull back to what amounts to an “offshore balancer” position a la the British Empire in its hayday. First off, the US needs to get out of Central Asia and Subsaharan Africa, then out of Eastern Europe. After that, we can work on getting out of the Persian Gulf states and the ME (including ending our toxic relationship with Israel) generally. That would still leave us with a big, forward-deployed presence in the rim of Western Europe, the straights mentioned above, and East Asia. Throw in Australia, NZ and the Rio Treaty allies, and the US would, while avoiding the current problems of trying to dictate to the Euroasian land mass/”World Island,” still be the Big Cheese. The First among the Great Powers. In a perfect position to deal with any real threat to world security. And still have, arguably, too much, rather than too little, to do.

But, better that than to try to live up to pretensions to run the whole damn world. It is depressing that there are so few remaining voices, right, left and center, for anything but more and more intervention in less and less important regions and countries for longer and longer time periods.

#5 Comment By Colonel Bogey On March 31, 2017 @ 2:33 pm

Trying to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ was a crazy project in itself, but for a country like ours, whose government is supposed to be a constitutional republic, and whose constitution does not mention democracy, is even crazier. I have never been a John Bircher, but when Robert Welch proclaimed ‘This is a republic, not a democracy; let’s keep it that way’, he was absolutely correct. (A constitutional monarchy would be even better, if only it could be squared with state sovereignty.)

#6 Comment By Peter On March 31, 2017 @ 2:50 pm

A thoughtful analysis.
“Continued adherence to Wilsonian norms only sets the United States up for continued disappointment” plus huge costs in blood and treasure.
It is indeed time for speaking softly while carrying the big stick.
And cutting down on alliances – do we need Montenegro in NATO?

#7 Comment By Thrice A Viking On March 31, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

I’m a little puzzled by one thing that the author posts here: the praise of Eisenhower’s handling of the USSR’s invasion of Hungary in 1956. He says that “no blood or treasure [were] spilled”. Well, no American blood or treasure anyway. If the US hadn’t intervened in WWII (and we might not have if not for Pearl Harbor, much as FDR wanted to go to war), and the Nazis had then successfully carried out their Final Solution, would he be as smug about our lack of involvement serving American interests?

There’s another, more general point that warrants exploration IMO. In terms of communications and transportation, the world has changed enormously from the way it was in the heyday of the British Empire. It took a lot of time to mobilize an army or a navy back then. Now, with ICBMs capable of striking an adversary in no more than half an hour, and jets which can strike within hours, the world requires much quicker response time. Even in naval warfare, I remember Readers Digest heralding, a couple of decades ago, the arrival of the 100 MPH navy. As to communications, we have seen how quickly violent mobs can form in response to perceived outrages committed just hours before. With all this, it behooves us to reconsider how much weight to give even much recent history.

#8 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On March 31, 2017 @ 9:07 pm

What an oddly rosy view of British colonialism. The author completely glosses over the British influence in creating the modern Middle East, the division of India and in East Africa. Literally three of the world’s worst conflicts arguably started with heavy handed British imperialism.

1) The division of India was the best thing that ever happened to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and other non-Muslims in the subcontinent.

Had there been no Partition, we would now have roughly 600 million Muslims in India. We have enough problems with the 200 million we are currently blessed with – an India with 600 million Muslims would have been a Pakistani-style slaughterhouse for kaffirs on a subcontinental scale.

Every Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh with an IQ above room temperature gives thanks to Jinnah and Mountbatten every day. Sadly, that rules out roughly 33% of my fellow Hindus who are numbskulls with the historical awareness of buffaloes.

2) The problem in the Middle-East was that the British were not there long enough. From 1920 to 1950 is about 30 years, and that was not long enough to civilize the denizens of those countries and bring them into even the 17th century, let alone the 20th century.

3) Africa was, is, and always will be a basket-case. Countries like Uganda, Rhodesia, and South Africa used to be well-run countries under colonial administration – I know we are not allowed to say this and yes, apartheid was awful and my fellow Indians were second-class citizens there etc. but the truth is the truth.

Zimbabwe has reverted to the bush under Mugabe, who has killed more people than the British ever did, and South Africa will follow in a few more years. This has nothing to do with the British. There isn’t one half-way decent country in Africa, ex-British colony or otherwise.

#9 Comment By Me On March 31, 2017 @ 9:28 pm

“‘I won’t make a Nation,’ says he. ‘I’ll make an Empire! … Peachey, man,’ he says, chewing his beard in great hunks, ‘we shall be Emperors — Emperors of the Earth! Rajah Brooke will be a suckling to us. I’ll treat with the Viceroy on equal terms. I’ll ask him to send me twelve picked English — twelve that I know of — to help us govern a bit. There’s Mackray, Sergeant-pensioner at Segowli — many’s the good dinner he’s given me, and his wife a pair of trousers. There’s Donkin, the Warder of Tounghoo Jail; there’s hundreds that I could lay my hand on if I was in India. The Viceroy shall do it for me. … and we’d be an Empire. When everything was ship-shape, I’d hand over the crown — this crown I’m wearing now — to Queen Victoria on my knees, and she’d say:— “Rise up, Sir Daniel Dravot.” Oh, its big! It’s big, I tell you!’

#10 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 1, 2017 @ 2:01 am

“’Continued adherence to Wilsonian norms only sets the United States up for continued disappointment’ plus huge costs in blood and treasure.”

If you define the United States as the 300 million of us, then certainly we will be continually disappointed and we will experience losses of lives and economic well-being.

But there is satisfaction among the elites who pretend to us it is about democracy promotion. They, in contrast to us, experience no loss of life, and accumulate to themselves the very treasure we sacrifice.

#11 Comment By Ken On April 1, 2017 @ 10:53 am

Many good points made in the comments. WW1 did not need to happen and, from what I’ve read, people in the British gov’t including Churchill, had a major hand in the decision (or at least some influence).

The author’s reference point is above the din and general dirt of real world causes of foreign policy drivers such as the mil-industrial complex, powerful banking and other corporate interests. To me, these factors hijack and subvert otherwise well-intentioned policy objectives. This is what tends to make my blood boil.

The past roughly 100 hundred years has been more experimentation and dealing with the messy, bloody consequences. Have you noticed that human nature has not evolved – yet?

I doubt things will improve in our lifetime.

But I do think a good starting point is making DC off limits to lobbies and anything resembling them. I know, will never happen.

#12 Comment By IceyFrance On April 1, 2017 @ 12:17 pm

“. . .the end result was the abdication of the Kaiser and the transformation of a highly functional state into the chaotic Weimar Republic, which of course was **hijacked** by the Nazi Party after a decade.”

If Weimar, the outcome of Wilsonianism, was “chaotic,” then what rational — not propaganda-driven, not knee-jerk but rational assessment of the achievements of the National Socialists, validates the use of the pejorative “hijacked”?
Didn’t the NSDAP achieve reform of the “chaotic” Weimar Republic, and do so without — repeat without — egregious violence or revolutionary turmoil? Was that a bad thing? Would it have been preferable to have allowed the chaos to perdure?

“But, but” you sputter, “Hitler was a dictator.”

Hitler was/is a brand; he acted alone just as much as Bill Gates built Microsoft alone: in both instances, a lot of thoughtful, hard-working people and institutions, driven by a panoply of agendas, came together to solve problems and advance interests.

It will not be possible to truly understand the history of the era sufficiently to correct and reformulate policy based upon that history, until “Nazi” and “Hitler” are de-demonized and analyzed fully and fairly.

#13 Comment By Safe Harbor On April 1, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

Yes, “globalism” and “interventionism” has meant 15 years of blood and death, lost liberties, trillions in debt, jobs hemorrhaging overseas, economic inequality, chronic terror attacks and refugee floods.

But you don’t have to balance a critique of our recent Wilsonian disasters with pro forma disparagement or dismissal of “isolationism”. “Isolationism” may well be just what the doctor ordered.

Indeed, “isolationism” is due a not very strange new respect. A sane “isolationist” foreign policy (the default foreign policy of most of our Founding Fathers, after all) would be a breath of fresh, healthy air after the moral squalor and economic and strategic catastrophe of internationalism, “engagement”, and soul-killing, culture-destroying mass immigration.

So let’s not connive at NYTimes-like semantic subterfuges by deploying “isolationism” as though it is a bad word.

#14 Comment By Cornel Lencar On April 1, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

(1) maintaining American forces near key chokepoints, such as the Gulf of Hormuz and the Malacca Straits to ensure the freedom of the seas;

or to block uppity contenders… China, which dearly depends on the free navigation in Malacca Straits is always presented as a threat to that.

More and more the language used by the U.S. sounds like 1984: war is peace, freedom is slavery, democracy is fascism, etc.

#15 Comment By Philip Martin On April 1, 2017 @ 11:47 pm

I agree with the conclusion, but find much of the argument that gets us there to be specious. The author’s characterization of British colonialism is too general and generally inaccurate, especially in regard to colonies in Africa. British hegemony didn’t last for two centuries. The Pax Brittanica period is usually regarded as lasting from 1815 to 1914, but with a Britain increasingly worried about its place in the sun for the the last 30 years or so of the that century. In other words, the British “century” was really about 75 years–much like out own century?

We can indeed learn much about how to manage the decline of our own empire from history, and I think we have the most to learn from the English, who, late in the process, realized that they could either manage their decline or have others manage it for them (but not necessarily in a benign way).

One characteristic of empires in decline is a glorification of the military, and this can take many forms. In our own case, we tend to regard our military as one of the last refuges of a coherent and valorous way of life, a repository of all the best American values. Perhaps this is true, and good? A question for debate.

However, most empires in decline show a marked preference for military action over diplomacy. Again, look to the British. Impoverished as they were by the costs of WW II, they became embroiled in conflicts in Malaysia, East Africa, Aden, and, most disastrously, Suez. Many of these military misadventures could have been avoided with a more perspicacious foreign policy and forward-looking strategy of exiting the empire game.

In the same spirit, we can look at our bases in central Asia, as an example, and ask “why?” And one day, when we and our most valuable allies are no longer dependent on oil from the Gulf, we may let go of Hormuz.

#16 Comment By Ioannis S. Lamprou On April 8, 2017 @ 4:17 pm

” We can indeed learn much about how to manage the decline of our own empire from history, and I think we have the most to learn from the English,…”. This is also the case of the later period of the East Roman Empire ( Byzantine Empire). See Edward N.Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.