Wilsonianism - Expanding the definition of wilsonianism

It can well be argued, however, that Wilsonianism has critical elements besides fostering democracy in its framework for global order. For a politically plural world, one opposed to great power imperial spheres of influence, would rather obviously need mechanisms to stitch together regional and global consensus on any number of matters. One of Wilson's leading concerns, consequently, was to get international affairs past balance-of-power politics. His solution was "collective security," the notion that all peace-loving states (a category he at first reserved only for democratic countries) should pledge themselves to joint action to keep the peace. Wilson recognized early on that a world composed of a large number of independent states, an order explicitly committed to anti-imperialism in the name of national self-determination, would by its very nature be forced to create a set of multilateral institutions to maintain the peace. Hence, he proposed the Pan American League (today the Organization of American States) and, most important of all, the League of Nations (the prototype of what became the United Nations). In short, a second element of Wilsonianism is multilateralism: the conviction that a range of international institutions based on the rule of law could keep the peace among states pledged domestically to the same principles.

Wilson's hopes for multilateral institutions may be said to have come to fruition in the five years between 1944 and 1949, the period that saw the creation of the Bretton Woods system for the world economy, the establishment of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe, and the setting up of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Here were the instruments for Washington to pursue two goals—a two-track policy—at the same time: the containment of communism and the construction of a democratic fraternity with special emphasis on western Europe and Japan.

International economic openness was a third element of Wilsonianism. Following the British example, Wilson championed liberalism in world economics, the notion that states should not claim special privileges for themselves in economic matters (a position that often led to political imperialism) but instead let market forces operate, treating all comers equally through what are called "most-favored-nation treaties." The result would contribute not only to a more prosperous, but also to a more peaceful, international system. The concern to foster such a system stretches back in American history to the American Revolution itself, with its hatred of British mercantilist practices.

Nevertheless, Wilson's ideas on this score were not highly developed. By comparison, the efforts at Bretton Woods in 1944 to set up an open postwar international economic system were far more ambitious than anything he had ever conceived. Yet whatever these earlier and later considerations, Wilson certainly embraced international economic openness and saw it as an ingredient in his liberal internationalist package, one that tied in rather neatly with his call for strong multilateral institutions to regulate world affairs.

The fourth element of Wilsonianism was the conviction that the United States had to be deeply involved in international affairs if "the world was to be safe for democracy." Whatever the fear of "entangling alliances" warned against by George Washington, the United States simply could no longer stand aloof. By Wilson's lights, the United States had stepped onto the world stage in the War with Spain (1898), which had made it a Pacific power and the dominant presence in the Caribbean. By entering the European war in 1917 and presiding at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the United States had committed itself to being a European power as well. Henceforth, matters of political moment in most parts of the globe necessarily had to be the concern of Washington.

As with other elements of Wilsonianism, the notion that the United States was necessarily committed to internationalism became more widespread with World War II and the Cold War that followed. To be sure, in the aftermath of the collapse of Soviet communism, both public and elite opinion in the United States began to become relatively more concerned with domestic issues than had been the case before. Nevertheless, the Republican commitment to "unilateralism" rather than multilateralism, vexing as it may be to Wilsonians who fear that neo-isolationism might follow if the Republican penchant should be confirmed, does not necessarily mean that U.S. involvement in world affairs will noticeably diminish in the twenty-first century.

Thus, while Wilsonianism is most commonly identified as human rights and fostering democracy for others, in fact, it is necessarily a commitment as well to multilateralism, open markets, and U.S. leadership in world affairs. An interest in an open international economic system and a politically plural world may predate Wilson's tenure as president, and all aspects of what we call Wilsonianism may have evolved with time, without putting in doubt the utility of keeping the term.

Perhaps the most significant change since Woodrow Wilson's time in liberal democratic internationalism is the conviction that for democracy to occur, changes in other domains of a people's life must be involved. For example, while Wilson himself did not envision socioeconomic change as a constituent part of the democratizing process, his successors who oversaw the democratization of Germany and Japan were New Dealers, who most certainly did. So, too, the Alliance for Progress linked the democratization of Latin America to socioeconomic change, and especially to land reform. And again, Ronald Reagan had an economic dimension to his call for democratization when he stressed the importance of deregulation and privatization along with economic openness as essential for political change. Neither Jimmy Carter nor George H. W. Bush gave much attention to the socioeconomic character of political change, yet each could nonetheless be called Wilsonian, given their commitment to human rights and promotion of democracy abroad.

With respect to later innovations, Jimmy Carter's call for the respect worldwide of human rights emerges as especially important. The character of virtually all these "rights" dealt with restraints on governments in their relationship with society. Such rights were thus part of the liberal heritage of the West and were basic to the emergence of constitutionally limited government there. But as Carter himself understood, human rights were not synonymous with democracy. Nonetheless, a government that respected human rights as defined by the Western tradition almost necessarily was setting into motion forces that could lead to democratic government.

As this example of Carter's human rights appeal indicates, Wilsonianism is a multifaceted concept, constantly in evolution. Differences may well appear among Wilsonians as to the proper cast of U.S. foreign policy, and changes are sure to be introduced that today we can see only dimly. But such is the lot of any general approach to world events and not a reason to conclude that Wilsonianism is too vague, too internally contradictory, or too subject to change to be worthy of being considered a distinctive approach to answering the question of how the United States should orient itself, at least in part, with respect to the challenges posed by international affairs.

Perhaps most important of all, Wilsonianism should be seen as a U.S. bid to structure a world order on American terms. It is an essential part of the framework for American hegemony, designed to win the peace after winning three wars: the two world wars and the Cold War. Foreign critics of the United States have generally grasped this truth about Wilsonianism more clearly than many Americans, including those who think of themselves as Wilsonians. Wilson would make the world safe for democracy. But critics of Wilsonianism sometimes have understandably been concerned that in these circumstances democracy might not be safe for the world, that it might become the rallying call for an international crusade, waging war in the name of peace and bringing American domination in the guise of national self-determination. What is certainly the case is that Wilsonianism is part of an American bid for international hegemony, and it should be more widely recognized as such by those who might otherwise treat the doctrine as more altruistic and less self-interested than it actually is.

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