Is Wilsonianism Coming to an End?

The 100th anniversary of the speech known as The Fourteen Points, which US President Woodrow Wilson delivered on January 8, 1918, in the US Congress, confronts us with the question of whether the world order based on free trade and liberal interventionism, whose foundations Wilson helped to shape, can survive in the face of new developments.

Before answering this question, let us briefly remind ourselves of the main points in Wilson’s speech as well as of the main tenets of the ideology known as Wilsonianism. Some of the points made in Wilson’s famous speech were quite specific, setting the rules for the post-war developments in Europe. Several, however, addressed broad international concerns, forming the backbone of the international order for decades to come.

The most important of those general points was the very first of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which stated that after the end of the World War “there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”

The League of Nations

The most important concrete outcome of this new philosophy of international a airs was the eventual creation of the League of Nations, whose establishment Wilson envisaged in point 14, in which he said: “A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of according mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”

Although The League of Nations in the end failed in preventing another war, Wilson’s idea did not die with it. It reemerged after World War II in the form of the United Nations, an organization that stands in the center of the world order even today. Together with Wilson’s emphasis on open diplomacy, it has contributed to the rise of the body of international law that governs relations among the states today.

The most important legacy of the Fourteen Points, however, is that it further helped to form a new US ideology of “liberal interventionism.” Together with Wilson’s key views, which were known from his other important speeches and scholarly works (Wilson had been an important scholar and university president before going into politics), the main points of this ideology, often referred to as Wilsonianism, are advocacy of the spread of democracy, advocacy of the spread of capitalism, and opposition to isolationism and non-interventionism.

Wilsonianism later played an important role in shaping the order in Europe after World War I (and also after World War II), and—with its emphasis on the self-determination of nations—it also undermined the concept of colonialism. The successful transformation of Japan and Germany into democracies with the help of liberal interventionism can be traced back to Wilson.

One of the Most Influential Ideologies

Wilson has influenced quite a few US neo-conservatives. The fact that their policies, when pursued by some American presidents at the end of the 20th century, were not as successful in democratizing other countries as were the American policies immediately after World War I and World War II has recently given Wilsonianism a bad name.

The most important legacy of the Fourteen Points, however, is that it further helped to form a new US ideology of “liberal interventionism.”

However, Wilsonianism remains one of the most influential ideologies of the 20th century. We could argue that it is co-responsible for the spread of global market economy. And it is still with us in the form of liberal world order. In that sense it won in competition with other major ideologies that were prominent in the 20th century, such as communism or Nazism.

Today, however, we can hear arguments that the world liberal order is coming to an end. Globalization, propelled by free trade, is, it seems, in trouble. US President Donald Trump is the most prominent representative of the breed of politicians in Western democracies that promote economic nationalism and claim that the world liberal order—based on many multilateral treaties and organizations—needs to be revised in favor of more nationalist policies.

Wilsonianism later played an important role in shaping the order in Europe after World War I (and also after World War II), and—with its emphasis on the self-determination of nations—it also undermined the concept of colonialism.

In order to determine whether the world liberal order and globalization—both, to some extent, political legacies of Wilsonianism—are indeed coming to an end, we need to answer the following question: Is the current rise of nationalist politicians and resistance to economic globalization a long-term trend or just a temporary backlash?

The answer is connected to another question: Was Wilsonianism just a set of political ideas formulated in a political vacuum, with little regard for the underlying forces that were driving the development of the market economy and international relations at the time, or was it a clairvoyant political reflection of such underlying forces? In other words: Was Wilson with his emphasis on liberal interventionism and free trade, which politically paved the way for globalized politics and market, imposing as the leader of the emerging world superpower on the rest of the world ideas that had no real rooting in the development of science, technology, and a market economy, or was he just reflecting the obvious trend, giving it a political expression?

A More Interconnected World

It can be argued that Wilson as a scholar and thinker, who became a politician, was able to see earlier than some other politicians that the technological and scientific developments are driving the world toward more interconnectedness and unity, rather than the opposite. And he was, therefore, looking for a political answer to such developments.

Nothing has changed in the way modern technologies and science work since then. The only change is that the speed of technological and scientific progress that makes it easier for the market economy to globalize, and for individual people as well as nations to be interconnected, has accelerated – perhaps to the point that the speed of change has created new ghosts and fears, which are politically misused by nationalist politicians.

But can they really stop or reverse this process with political measures? Donald Trump and some other nationalist politicians in democratic countries seem to think so, while authoritarian China, which has become the world largest economy, has paradoxically become the most fervent proponent of globalization, from which it has hugely benefited.

The answer to the question of whether global free trade and the world liberal order are in danger therefore depends, it seems, on whether politics can in the end have—on the national level—the upper hand over the powerful and globalized technological, scientific and economic trends, or whether it is, in fact, driven by such trends. If the latter is true, the current rise in nationalism and populism is just a temporary political backlash, which cannot succeed, although it can do a lot of damage.

However, even if we assume that we are faced only with a temporary backlash, there is still another troubling question related to the legacy of Wilsonianism: Is liberal democracy still the best answer to the newly emerging world? Are other forms of effective governance more appropriate for the world increasingly dominated by smart machines and communication? The answer is that we still do not know—despite the fact that obituaries for liberal democracy are now being written every day.

Jiří Pehe

is a Czech political analyst and writer, and since 1999, he has been the Director of New York University’s academic center in Prague. He was the director of the Political Cabinet in the office of Czech President Václav Havel and continued serving as Havel’s external political advisor until the end of Havel’s term in 2003. Pehe has written numerous essays and papers and has also published several books, including three novels.

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