Wilsonianism came into being not because of American "innocence" and "religiosity," as its critics often like to claim, so much as because the program was based on deep-seated American interests, values, and institutions, and, equally important, because the doctrine found a response in social and political forces the world around that sensed its global relevance. The source of the doctrine's strength thus lies in powerful material forces, some domestic, others foreign, which must be appreciated if we are to free ourselves from the notion that Wilsonianism is simply ideology without substance, a form of "social work" best performed by Mother Teresa, as one critic called it, devoid of an ability to express and serve the national interest. Let us then focus on each of the doctrine's analytically distinct material bases in turn, first the domestic and then the international.
The origins of an American belief that democracy, open markets, and multilateralism might serve as a framework for the construction of the country's foreign policy grew from the interests, values, and institutions of this country itself. Thus, the American Revolution stemmed from many sources, but one was the colonists' objection to British mercantilism, the feeling that the colonies would be better off if they were able to buy and sell on the world market without London's interference. What was true for London was equally true for Madrid; hence, U.S. sympathy with the independence of Latin America in the early nineteenth century. As the United States grew into an industrial power in the second half of the nineteenth century, its commitment to open markets was confirmed. Thus, the Open Door Notes for China, predicated on the assumption that an independent China was good for American commerce, expressed essentially the same interests at the end of the nineteenth century that the Monroe Doctrine had expressed at its opening.
Antimercantilism meant anti-imperialism. From the Monroe Doctrine to the Open Door Notes, the United States favored a politically plural world for economic reasons. With the coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency, the American preference for open markets for the first time became an appeal for free (or freer) trade, an ambition institutionalized in the Bretton Woods system created in 1944, which has evolved and expanded significantly since. As the world's dominant economic power, the United States could only gain, on balance, from open economic arrangements, and it could easily be maintained, as it had been by the British in the nineteenth century, that the political dividends of international accord on open markets would be the dampening of competition, and hence the likelihood of war, among the great powers. In short, Wilsonianism's call for a plural political world of countries engaged in an open international economic network corresponded with the interests of powerful social and political domestic forces.
But there were critical security considerations as well. Protected by mighty oceans and weak neighbors, the United States was able to indulge the belief of its founders that standing armies were a menace to the health of republican institutions and values. Anti-imperialism thus meant that the United States need maintain only a small armed force—at the time of the Spanish-American War in 1898, there were fewer than 50,000 men in the army and navy combined, an astonishingly small number by comparative measures. The fear, however, was that other great powers might somehow endanger the United States by their imperial expansions, developments Washington was determined to keep at bay in the Western Hemisphere (the Monroe Doctrine) and was concerned to see limited in northeast Asia (the Open Door Notes and later support for China) and in Europe as well after 1914.
In addition to economic and military reasons to oppose great power imperialism, the United States put forth arguments that were political as well. As a democracy, the country was not interested in annexing foreign peoples to participate in its government—especially when these people were numerous, poor, dark-skinned, and Roman Catholic, as was the case in the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Philippines, where American power bulked large after the victories over Mexico in 1848 and over Spain in 1898. Nor did controlling these people through military proconsuls seem appealing, for there was concern that such practices might endanger republican institutions at home. The character of the country's values and institutions thus melded with security and economic considerations to allow the United States to respect the nationalist ambitions of other peoples and to applaud the destruction of foreign empires when they occurred.
Now that some account has been made of why Wilsonianism originated in the United States for reasons apart from Woodrow Wilson's personal genius, we turn to the international reception of liberal democratic internationalism. Too often, U.S. foreign policy is explained "from the inside out," as if the context in which Washington's ambitions are operationalized is of second-order importance (if even that) in understanding a policy's logic. Yet, if we set U.S. policy within a global framework, our perspective changes, because we can see the correspondence, the synchronization, the "fit" between American hopes and global realities and better appreciate how U.S. policy often succeeded (so that the Wilsonian ambition was confirmed) by working in tandem with global forces of modernization in ways that secured a range of U.S. interests. Simply put, there were powerful reasons why large parts of the globe might respond to Wilsonianism—just as there were reasons why parts might respond instead to the contemporary doctrines of Marxism-Leninism or fascism or national socialism.
From a historical perspective, the ideologies of communism, fascism, and liberal democracy that dominated politics in the twentieth century were relatively recent responses to economic, social, and political changes whose most immediate origins lie in the eighteenth century but whose pedigree can be traced farther back by the careful historian. A competitive European state system gave rise as early as the late sixteenth century to forms of nationalism and mass mobilization that would be accentuated as time progressed. The coming of the Industrial Revolution meant the empowerment or despoliation (the middle class on the one hand, the peasantry on the other, for example) of social forces new and old. The Renaissance and the Reformation engendered forms of thought that implicitly questioned a host of practices, from the basis of social order to the character of state legitimacy. Ultimately, the Enlightenment allowed the articulation of radically novel concepts of the nature of citizenship, the state, and the basis of international peace that were as troubling to domestic, regional, and global order as the challenges produced by a competitive state system and economic change.
In the process of what might be termed "the crisis of modernity," authoritarian and imperial states came one by one to their day of reckoning. It was not so much that these states were corrupt, immoral, decadent, and the like (although, of course, they typically were, from our current perspective) as that they were weak relative to states based on mass mobilization. In short order, a law of international life obliged other peoples in contact with the states where modern nationalism and economic development began either to imitate these new political forms or to perish. The result was a host of efforts at defensive modernization—undertakings by the Young Turks from central and eastern Europe to East Asia whose nationalist passion to modernize by reforming the state and society called forth tremendous domestic upheavals that quickly found their parallels in international life.
How were states and the international order to be restructured in an era of unprecedented economic and social change and modern nationalism? The American and French revolutions (as well as the evolution of Great Britain) initially suggested a natural affinity between liberal democracy and modernization. But the problems France later had in consolidating constitutional government, the failure of the "springtime of nations" in 1848, the deliberate attempts of conservative governments such as those in Japan, Russia, and Turkey to modernize without liberalizing or democratizing (although the former sometimes made headway without the latter), and the authoritarian aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917) all indicated the difficulties in many lands of founding constitutional government with a liberal democratic base. Ultimately, World War I revealed that the progressive optimism of the fin de siècle was altogether mistaken in its confident assurances that nationalism and liberal democracy necessarily had much in common.
Both communism and fascism were born of the conflagration of 1914–1918, the most momentous period of that terrible century. Each of these ideologies answered the crisis of modernity by setting forth ways of organizing society, the state, and state-society relations, and each came to be championed by great powers and to appear to be a viable alternative to liberal democratic government, which was despised by both of these forms of totalitarianism.
For the communists, the state would be structured as "the dictatorship of the proletariat," dominated by a "vanguard party" working through the Third International (the Comintern) to liberate the wretched of the earth—oppressed peasantries and working classes especially. Fascism would counter communist mass mobilization by mass parties of its own, parties devoted to defending the traditional order (as they mythologized it), including property, royalty, and established religion (where these institutions existed), while raising popular support with brands of nationalism that were racist and militarist. Different as communism and fascism were from each other and from liberal democracy, what all three had in common was their modernity, their ability to deal with new ideas of citizenship, state power, and world order in ways that were decisively different from any ideologies or organization of power that had preceded them and that promised new forms of state power to those who embraced their blueprints. As a consequence, each of these ideologies came to be championed by class, ethnic, and political interests not only in their lands of origin but virtually everywhere in the world. As the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) revealed, a three-way contest thus was joined from which few could stand apart.
This overly brief review of twentieth-century politics indicates that the stark elegance of realist theory about international relations, which holds that there is a universal dynamic to states' behavior, based on their calculation of their relative power position with respect to other states, needs to be augmented by historical and domestic analysis of the great changes of our times. While there may well be eternal verities about the human condition that we should honor whatever the differences of time and place (let us read and reread Thucydides and Machiavelli, by all means), these arguments should not give a license to overlook those verities that are specific to time and place, especially when they are of the fundamentally transformative kind we witnessed in the century just past. For what was occurring in the twentieth century was the birth pangs, on an international level, of the modern state, where more power was accumulated than ever before but where political actors often had opposing ideas as to the proper structuring of domestic and international life. In these circumstances, Wilsonianism, or liberal democratic internationalism, represented interests and values in fundamental opposition to those of communist and fascist regimes. The epochal struggle of World War II was over purpose as well as power, as Stalin's remark to the Yugoslav communist Milovan Djilas in April 1945 reveals: "This war is not as in the past. Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise."
To be sure, ideologies were also camouflages in the age-old struggle for power that concerned personalities as well as states. Still, the reason to take ideological contests seriously is that these idea sets represented large groupings of interests that gave them a material base in the struggle for supremacy in the twentieth century. In the event, it is not at all simplistic to maintain that it was not so much the United States and its European allies that triumphed in the struggles against fascism and communism as that what triumphed (at least by the end of the century) was liberal democratic internationalism, a set of ideas on the proper organization of the state, state-society relations, social structures from the family to the relative place of ethnic and religious minorities, and the structure of economic production.
Here, then, is a second persuasive reason why Wilsonianism should be taken seriously: it is not simply an American project for world order favorable to U.S. interests; it is also a formula (incomplete, vague, contradictory, and in constant evolution though it may be) that corresponds to the interests, values, and institutions of many other peoples around the globe. As Wilsonians realize, regime type matters. That is, it may well be a matter of concern for Washington whether powerful foreign governments are liberal democracies, for the historical evidence is clear that when they are, then the likelihood of stable, cooperative relations is significantly increased.
The evidence of the uniquely complicated agenda of social and political reorganization in the modern era is apparent in the early twenty-first century, when liberal democratic capitalism is the only game in town. This monopoly of design should not disguise the fear and hatred that many around the world feel for it. Still, no other general form of political and social life has yet been devised that is as effective at the local and international level as the one enjoyed by the international liberal democratic community today—a system kept in place, it might be underscored, largely by the terms set out by a hegemonic America.
Of course, the set of ideas that we call liberal democratic has never been either fully coherent or static. It has shown itself to possess numerous internal contradictions and to evolve dramatically according to time and place. American hegemony is complicated, therefore, not simply by its external rivals but also by its internal organization, which ceaselessly works to bedevil the problems of leadership.
As we have seen, by the early twentieth century—the time Wilson was elected president—it was becoming increasingly apparent that nationalism itself was no guarantee that a stable political order would be born either locally or regionally. In these circumstances, liberal democratic government could be proposed for others as a tried and proven formula perhaps of universal applicability. Perhaps Wilson was ahead of his time for most of Latin America and eastern Europe. But it is noteworthy at the beginning of the twenty-first century that whatever the troubles these regions experienced in the twentieth century, the promise of liberal democratic government remains as relevant today as ever. Fascism and communism have not worked as models of government in these areas. Hence, the continuing promise of Wilsonianism as the form of organization most likely to provide peace and well-being.
Nevertheless, many parts of the world rejected the Wilsonian premise in the twentieth century. In the early twenty-first century, the anarchy of much of Africa, the hostility of much of the Muslim world, and the cultural pride of China suggest clear limits to the appeal of liberal democratic government. Such countries and regions must nonetheless be worked with by Washington in a search for mutual interest that a well-nigh religious fervor for human rights and democratic government may fail to perceive at all adequately.
The record of the Clinton administration (1993–2001) suggests the limits of the Wilsonian argument. Initially, the administration believed that "the containment of communism would be replaced by the enlargement of democracy," that a "muscular multilateralism" would prevail, and that the intensified globalization of the world economy not only would lead to general prosperity but also would help to integrate the world politically while fostering democratic governments in areas like China, where the future of regime types seemed up for debate.
In short order, the Clinton administration was chastened to learn how limited a Wilsonian policy could be. China successfully rebuffed efforts to link trade negotiations to its human rights conduct. The U.S. intervention in Somalia for human rights purposes backfired, stymieing efforts to duplicate such action in Haiti, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Later, Clinton oversaw a U.S. occupation of Haiti and an attack on Serbia so as to end its human rights abuses in Kosovo, but as the prospects for democratic government appeared stark in both regions, a certain soberness set in as to the centrality of Wilsonian thinking in the making of U.S. foreign policy.
In sum, Wilsonianism is a tried and proven formula for advancing U.S. interests in the world because of its correspondence both to the character of America as a country and to the needs of peoples around the world. But it is far from a complete or foolproof guide to what American foreign policy should be. The task for the future, as it was for the past, is to know when and how to make use of its recommendations, but also when and why to be skeptical of its relevance.