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The Bitter Fruits of Wilsonianism

There is an alternative to democracy promotion—and it’s not isolationism.

“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:

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 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 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 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 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, 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: “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 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 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.



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