Trump and Wilson's ghost: The Fourteen Points turn 100 years

Trump and Wilson's ghost: The Fourteen Points turn 100 years
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One year into his presidency, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE’s worldview is clear. He has abdicated global leadership and renounced the international order that America made. His purely transactional, nakedly cynical diplomacy rejects longstanding U.S. support for collective security, multilateral trade, and democracy.

How different from the idealistic Woodrow Wilson, the prophet of internationalism who issued his famous blueprint for a liberal world order, the Fourteen Points, exactly a century ago. Wilson had reluctantly taken the nation to war in April 1917. But once the United States was engaged, he renounced traditional war aims, insisting that the nation pursue a new world order informed by American principles.

On Jan. 8, 1918, two months after the Bolsheviks seized power in Moscow, Wilson unveiled the Fourteen Points as an alternative to socialist revolution and crude European geopolitics. He envisaged a new era of “more wholesome diplomacy.” Its elements would include “open covenants of peace openly arrived at,” “absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas,” “the removal of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions,” a worldwide reduction in armaments, and the “impartial adjustment of all colonial claims” consistent with self-determination.

But the most provocative point was the fourteenth. It envisioned a “general association of nations” to afford legally binding “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” During 1918, Wilson developed this idea into the League of Nations, the first major global institution for peace and security and a forerunner of the United Nations.

Wilson did not invent collective security. But he was the first statesman to try to recast world politics according to its principles. For centuries the balance of power had regulated international affairs, with warfare mediating this precarious equilibrium. Wilson sought a more enduring arrangement, founded on a compact among peace-loving states. Unlike a narrow alliance, this universal system would treat security as indivisible, and the collective response to aggression would be the only legitimate use of force.

In Wilson’s mind, collective security was linked inextricably to four other aspects of liberal world order. The first was human freedom, which bred global tranquility. Authoritarian rule had enabled the Great War, Wilson reasoned, by insulating the Central Powers from the pacific proclivities of the public. Unlike Trump, who shows a reckless affinity for strongmen, Wilson yearned to make the world “safe for democracy.”

A second force for peace was free, reciprocal trade. Open commerce would allow nations to exploit peacefully the markets and resources that they might otherwise resort to force to obtain. Unlike Trump, who views the world economy in zero-sum, protectionist terms, Wilson understood that all nations could achieve absolute gains through the pursuit of comparative advantage in a liberal trading regime.

Democracy and free trade both encouraged peace. But a stable world also depended on formal institutions within which nations could pursue common goals. Once again, the contrast is striking. Trump regards multilateral cooperation as an unacceptable affront to sovereignty. What Wilson understood was that nations must sometimes cede freedom of action to shape their destiny in an interdependent world.

Finally, Wilson recognized, as Trump does not, that a stable, just world order requires American leadership. Anticipating the postwar world, Wilson expressed confidence that the United States would assume “its full share of responsibility for the maintenance of common covenants.” Wilson’s dreams would be dashed. The question of U.S. League membership quickly became the most bitter foreign policy debate in American history, eventually running aground in the U.S. Senate.

Wilson did himself no favors. He treated the League Covenant as a purely executive branch prerogative and refused to compromise. Republicans responded in kind. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, led the charge. In October 1919 he offered his own “Fourteen Reservations” to League membership.

Had Wilson been less obstinate, he and Lodge might have found common ground and forged a broad, bipartisan compromise. But the president refused to budge, particularly when it came to Article 10 of the League Covenant, which Republicans interpreted as an ironclad obligation defend the independence of any nation. A divided Senate failed to approve the League Covenant.

Hoping to salvage victory, Wilson asked U.S. voters to treat the 1920 elections as a “solemn referendum” on the League. His appeal fell on deaf ears. The public elected as president the isolationist Republican Warren Harding. For the next two decades the nation pursued an insular foreign policy. Even as world order crumbled under fascist assaults, an “America first” movement whose slogan Trump would later resurrect lobbied to keep the United States out of a second world war.

Pearl Harbor ended that chapter. But U.S. entry into the war also brought a silver lining, giving liberal internationalists a “second chance” to build an open world under U.S. leadership. Learning from Wilson’s mistakes, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman collaborated with influential Republicans like Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan to build a postwar order conducive to peace, prosperity, and stability.

This history is worth bearing in mind as Trump, the “chaos candidate” turned chaos president, dismantles the handiwork of the postwar generation. If Wilson shows how overweening pride and utopianism can ruin best laid plans, Trump teaches something else: how a narrow-minded nationalist can undermine U.S. interests and values and forfeit the privileges as well as responsibilities of global leadership.

Stewart Patrick is James Binger senior fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World.”