When the European nations went to war in August 1914, President Wilson saw the conflict as a sign that the old international system created by the Europeans had failed. Now was the time for new leadership. Wilson sought to create mechanisms for ensuring peace and stability, and one of his concerns was for the peoples of other nations. Wilson wanted to reconfigure the old diplomacy and replace it with an open system, one based on cooperation and communication. An ardent and eloquent advocate for liberalism, Wilson believed that democracy should prevail as the system of political governance around the world. In speaking to this issue time and again, he advocated the collective human rights of peoples to determine their own fates. More specifically, he pledged himself to the rights of eastern European peoples to choose their own form of government as the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed at the end of the war.
Wilson's call to liberalism came at a moment in world history when the United States rose from a regional power to a global one. American economic prowess provided the equipment and munitions France and Great Britain needed to fight the Central Powers from 1914 until the American entrance into the war in 1917. When they could no longer pay cash for the goods, the United States provided loans. In short, Woodrow Wilson possessed the economic and military clout to back up his calls for recognizing the collective rights of certain peoples.
The president's international commitment in this area, however, was not matched by any personal dedication to ensure that African Americans be allowed to participate in the domestic political process, nor did his push for self-determination extend to the victims of European colonialism in Africa, India, or East Asia. Like his predecessor from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, Wilson was both eloquent and passionate on the theoretical rights of peoples, and he had problems reconciling his rhetoric with his practices. In addition to offering a hearty endorsement of D. W. Griffith's virulently racist film Birth of a Nation (1915), for example, Wilson pursued a domestic program shortly after coming into office that segregated the federal service, one of the few places where African Americans could enjoy some semblance of equal employment opportunities.
Regionally, Wilson acted with what had become customary American arrogance when he dispatched marines to Haiti in 1915, denying Haitians the right to determine their own political system. Indeed, Wilson intervened with military force more times in Central America and the Caribbean than any other president. He also spurned the inclusion of a racial equality clause at the Versailles Conference in 1919 when the matter was raised by the Japanese delegation. Better for the Japanese to be given territory in China against Chinese wishes than have any language referring to racial equality make its way into the final text.
Despite his actions toward nonwhites inside and outside the United States, Wilson managed to articulate the notion of peoples freely determining their own government, an idea that continues to draw the attention of repressed peoples around the world. Unfortunately, Wilson was thinking solely of those peoples in eastern Europe who had lived under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In part, he was worried about how to contain the spread of communism coming out of the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and one way he hoped to achieve that goal was through the creation of a series of small states in the region, a sanitary cordon to thwart the movement of communism westward.
Wilson's rhetorical proclamations notwithstanding, the United States found it difficult to implement diplomatic policies that adhered to his commitments regarding democracy and collective rights. If anything, starting in the 1920s the United States began a consistent policy of supporting right-wing dictatorships around the world. As the historian David F. Schmitz has astutely noted in his study of U.S. support for these types of leaders, "promoting human rights and democracy demands a toleration of instability and change in regions considered crucial to American business or defense, often leaving no clear choice between conscience and self-interest and making strong, stable right-wing dictators attractive to policymakers." Thus, the ability of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to bring stability and order to his nation during the 1920s meant more to American policymakers than his fascist inclinations. All three Republican presidents during the decade agreed that "order and stability had to be the primary considerations," stated Schmitz.