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The Folly of Wilsonism

In the midst of the commotion generated by the U.S. missile strikes against Syria’s Al Shayrat air base on April 6, Rex Tillerson’s statement at Sant’Anna di Stazzema, Italy, received less attention than it deserved. Visiting a memorial to victims of Nazi brutality in World War II, the secretary of state declared: “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”

Americans should pause to consider the breathtaking sweep of this statement—particularly in light of President Trump’s missile attacks, launched in response to a chemical-weapons assault attributed to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Tillerson apparently wants the United States to respond anytime noncombatants get targeted anywhere in the world by armies or governments engaged in war.

Not even Woodrow Wilson ever uttered a statement so Wilsonian in tone and breadth. The essence of Wilsonism stems from the 28th president’s discomfort with American overseas actions conducted in behalf of U.S. interests. But humanitarian interests—now that was a crusade worthy of his countrymen. Even before he took America into World War I, as he sought to put himself forward as an interlocutor for peace among the European belligerents, he made clear in sweeping language that he spoke for a moral authority far higher than mere nationalism. “I hope and believe,” he declared, “that I am in effect speaking for liberals and friends of humanity in every nation … I would fain believe that I am speaking for the silent mass of mankind everywhere.”

Later, as war president, he boasted that U.S. national interests hadn’t entered his thinking. “What we demand in this war,” he said, “is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in. … All the peoples of the world are in effect partners in this interest.”

This gauzy humanitarianism was dangerous then, and it is dangerous now. When you include all the peoples of the world in your global project, you end up with an unmanageable foreign-policy remit with no end in sight. The world is a brutal place, full of senseless, horrific killing in multiple locations at all times. Despite Tillerson’s tall talk about protecting innocents everywhere, it isn’t possible.

And when have we ever seen leaders of other countries bend to such frothy admonitions, even when backed up by the threat of military might? They take their guidance from fundamental geopolitical realities and how those realities impinge upon their basic national interests. Consider George W. Bush’s idealistic goal of transforming Iraq into a model democracy and hence into a beacon for other Mideast nations. How has that worked out?

This magazine has been warning since its inception about the Wilsonian ethos and impulse. It isn’t that we don’t care about the sufferings of humanity around the globe. Nor do we think humanitarianism has no place in foreign-policy considerations. But the humanitarian project, as a global policy, holds no reasonable prospect of success. More likely it will draw the country into folly and tragedy. Governments weren’t instituted for such purposes; they exist for the protection and wellbeing of their citizens.

Tillerson should ask himself: who among his countrymen should die in behalf of his wispy notion of helping innocents throughout the world? It’s a fitting question because we know that Americans nearly always die when such projects unfold (Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Yemen).

Donald Trump campaigned on a slogan of “America First.” His America First nationalism can’t mesh with Tillerson’s extreme Wilsonian internationalism. The president will have to choose. The country and the world are waiting.

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