Wilsonianism - Whither wilsonianism?

Arguing the strength and the success of Wilsonianism in American foreign policy does not necessarily predict its role in the framework for American policy in the new century. The so-called realist critics of Wilsonianism have been cogent in the analysis of the shortcomings they see in liberal democratic internationalism. To realists such as George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Walter Lippmann, and Henry Kissinger, Wilsonianism is "idealistic," "utopian," and "moralistic" for two essential reasons.

First, not all the world is ready for liberal democratic government. The social, economic, cultural, and political preconditions for such a regime type are in many instances so lacking that for the United States to pursue global democratization is to engage upon a quixotic crusade sure to damage the national interest. From this point of view, Wilsonians may fail to cooperate with authoritarian governments when this is necessary for security reasons; indeed, they may raise tensions with such regimes by their hectoring, superior, self-righteous posturing. Or Wilsonians may intervene, trying to bend local conditions to their recipes, in the process overextending American power and confusing national priorities.

Realists are thus correct to suggest that Wilsonians may suffer from a failure to recognize the objective limits to American power, to set clear priorities regarding American goals, to see the United States with the modesty that a reading of the country's history should reveal, and to sup with the devil when expediency demands it. Liberal democratic internationalists should learn from these counsels when they consider how to promote their agenda abroad.

In many parts of the world (China, many Muslim countries), cultures hostile to the West or proud of ancient traditions equate democratization with Westernization, and any such process with cultural decadence and national disintegration. Like Slavophiles, Germanophiles, or groups of Japanese, Turkish, or Chinese reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the hopes of many in these lands are to duplicate the power of the West but in terms of local ways. Elsewhere, as in much of Africa, hostility toward the West may be less marked, but anarchy undermines every effort toward democratic consolidation.

The second criticism offered by realists is that even were the world to be dominated by liberal democratic states, the anarchy of international relations would soon pit them against one another. Consider, for example, that in world affairs both India and France rather consistently distance themselves from American policy. In other words, from the point of view of war and peace, whether governments are democratic or not is not of great moment.

Here, however, realists are on far weaker ground than in their first objection to Wilsonianism, or so liberal internationalists believe. Since the early 1990s, a compelling amount of data have been produced demonstrating that liberal democratic regimes are in fact more cooperative and less conflictual in their relations with one another than other regime types would be. This literature argues the existence of a "democratic peace," maintaining that there is strong historical evidence that liberal democratic states do not go to war with one another, are likely to make superior economic partners, and are remarkably successful at making common institutions work. The Princeton political scientist Michael Doyle was the first to present empirical findings in this direction in the early 1980s, but with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the implosion of the Soviet Union two years later, Doyle's articles became subject to closer attention. The result was a string of empirical confirmations of the existence of the democratic peace and a variety of efforts to explain why it held true.

Seen from this perspective, the emergence of liberal democratic government in Russia, Turkey, and Mexico—to cite three examples of nations where such transitions seem possible in the early twenty-first century—could be argued to be of genuine importance to the national interests of the United States and its co-democracies in the European Union. Indeed, the character of the European Union is the most dramatic evidence of the kind of positive effects democratization may bring. Thanks to the democratization of Germany, European integration became a possibility. As the European Union grew in power, it drew into its institutions the countries of southern Europe, where the prospects for liberal democratic government had been relatively weak. The result was the consolidation of democratic regimes throughout this region, a development that would have been inconceivable without the European Union's insistence on democracy as a prerequisite for membership. The same process seems evident in central Europe, from Poland to Slovenia especially, where the prospect of joining the European Union offers a fillip for democratic forces and institutions there. And behind the integration of Europe on these terms stands the spirit of Woodrow Wilson, who was the first to maintain that this epochal event could occur only if Germany were democratized and Germany and France were to join together, creating what today is called the "engine of European unity."

Much the same positive outcome, so far as promotion of democracy and U.S. interests are concerned, can be said to have occurred with the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO's basic security mission should not conceal the fact that it has also been associated with the liberalization of those countries that are members. To take but one example, civilian control of the military is obligatory on all member countries, and the reforms that this rule has entailed have contributed directly to the stability of democratic life in southern and central Europe. In these circumstances, it is worth noting that the most outspoken Wilsonian on European affairs at the turn of the century was Czech President Václav Havel.

To what extent have the lessons of history, as they are taught by Wilsonians, captured the mind of the American political elite? The vagaries of American political life are such that some individuals and parties stress the importance of liberal democratic internationalism more than others. Traditionally, the Democratic Party has been more Wilsonian than the Republican Party, but one should be careful not to overstate the differences. Republican Ronald Reagan was especially strong in his efforts to promote democratic government worldwide, while the dominant wing of the Republican Party has long favored open international markets and an active role for the United States in world affairs. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Democratic Party is far more likely to call for promotion of human rights and democracy abroad and to be concerned about U.S. participation in multinational institutions of a variety of sorts. The Republicans, by contrast, tend to be suspicious that promotion of democracy and excessive commitments to international organizations could muddle the priorities for the national interest while imprudently overextending the United States in situations where it has little at stake.

One problem for Wilsonians in the early twenty-first century is that public opinion polls show little interest in fostering human rights and democracy for others among the public at large. Meanwhile, powerful voices representing the working class warn of possible income decline among poorer Americans should economic globalization proceed apace. And a neo-isolationist sentiment, a concern about entanglements abroad where the United States has no evident stake, makes leadership in a host of multinational institutions difficult to assert.

In these circumstances, some liberal internationalists began to call themselves "national security liberals," meaning they argued that the promotion of Wilsonianism constituted what Arthur Link called a "higher realism," a way of defending vital U.S. interests around the world. These modern Wilsonians stress that it is not only the degree of its power that allowed the United States to emerge as the world's leader at the beginning of the twenty-first century; there was a style to this power as well, a character that allowed it to create a security alliance and a world economic order unprecedented in history. They worry that lack of understanding of the purpose behind American power may cause this power to lack direction and confidence. But they comfort themselves with the notion that the package of programs liberal democratic internationalism calls for corresponds both to deep-set U.S. interests and to the needs of many foreign people. The result is that Wilsonian features of American foreign policy should remain an inescapable part of its character into the foreseeable future.

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