The drumbeat of idealism: Joe Biden, Woodrow Wilson and the Fourteen Points

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He presided over the passage of historic progressive legislation, led the nation to victory in World War I and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his postwar peacemaking in Paris. Nevertheless, it’s tough these days to find a kind word spoken about Woodrow Wilson.

Spurred by a renewed focus on his re-segregation of the Federal Civil Service in 1913, Princeton University in June overrode an earlier decision and removed his name from The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, its designation since 1948.

Wilson has never been a favorite of conservatives either, who consider his 1919 advocacy of the League of Nations, steeped in naive idealism, as the birth of a movement for “world government” at the expense of American sovereignty. This skepticism found new life in the “America First” platform of the Trump administration, which questioned the legitimacy of U.S. support for everything from NATO to the World Health Organization.

President-elect Biden hopes to revive the idealist impulse and reset the tricky balance between a U.S. commitment to both multilateralism and national self-interest. So it’s worth remembering that January 8 marks the anniversary of Wilson’s signature declaration, his 1918 wartime address to Congress announcing his Fourteen Points, including his proposal for a League of Nations. Looking back to that historical moment shows how Wilson envisioned that delicate equilibrium.

The Fourteen Points were not, like FDR’s 1941 North Atlantic Charter, a product of Allied consensus. Nor had they been negotiated with congressional leadership. They were Woodrow Wilson’s unilateral statement of American war aims, served up as a fait accompli to his British, French and Italian co-combatants. 

The U.S. entered the conflict in April 1917, but Wilson the Entente had failed to present a blueprint for peace. Following the November Bolshevik coup in Moscow, Lenin and Trotsky offered theirs, demanding “an armistice and a democratic peace without annexations or indemnities based on national self-determination.” The American president sought to regain the geopolitical initiative by detailing a liberal view of international order distinct from both old world, balance of power diplomacy and revolutionary socialism.

Wilson’s address is considered the founding statement of the “idealist school” of American foreign policy. But he is often given scant credit for pragmatism or nuance in his thinking. The Fourteen Points were based on “a principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities,” a principle he claimed as uniquely American. It was a ringing phrase, but it would leave room for multiple interpretations.

Nowhere in his address do the words “democracy” or “self-determination” appear. Wilson wanted flexibility in adjudicating national aspirations at the postwar peace conference, and eventually at the League of Nations. He was committed to the principle of self-government, but was particularly skeptical of ethnicity as a premise for constituting national boundaries, and the suitability of all nations for full democracy. He subsequently permitted self-determination to be appended to his agenda, a concession he came to regret.

Points I through V incorporated five general principles, unprecedented in their aspirations: no secret treaties, freedom of the seas, free trade, arms control and a tentative move toward recognition of the rights of colonized peoples. Points VI through XIII proposed the specific adjustments in national boundaries the postwar peacemakers would address, including language remarkably sympathetic to the Russian Bolsheviks.

Point XIV was the capstone, the League of Nations. Far from representing an “entangling alliance,” Wilson saw the League as a vehicle for America to participate in world affairs on its own terms. Backed up by the soft power of its postwar financial supremacy, the League would be a way for America to wield its new-found clout without involving itself in a postwar version of an Entente with wartime allies. This was Wilson’s vision for reconciling unilateralism with multilateralism.

Often overlooked is that the idea of a league originated with establishment Republicans. In 1915, The League to Enforce Peace (LEP) was launched with William Howard Taft as its president. It advocated a league of nations, a world court and mandatory arbitration of international disputes. In June 1916, both Wilson and his nemesis, Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, appeared on a New York platform endorsing the LEP (an endorsement Lodge soon recanted).

What was truly unprecedented about the Points address was Wilson’s ultimate audience. In the prewar era, foreign policy making had been the confidential province of diplomats. In January 1918 Wilson thrust it onto the public stage of international politics, speaking over the heads of governments, allies and opponents alike, directly to their populations. His message electrified world opinion, in particular liberals and socialists. Wilson was the first leader in the 20th century to leverage global public opinion, doing so in moral terms never before heard.

It was this innovation in statecraft that marked Wilson’s vision for the League of Nations. A failed lawyer early in life, he rejected the legalistic formulations of the LEP. His plan for the League, unveiled at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, cited “the moral force of the public opinion of the world” as the key to deterring aggression. “If the moral force of the world will not suffice, the physical force of the world shall. But that is the last resort.”

A useful contemporary comparison with Wilson’s outlook can be found in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Not a legally binding pact, it includes no emission reduction commitments that are legally binding under international law. Rather, it relies on peer pressure to compel countries to meet their  individually determined carbon reduction goals.

In trying to realize his vision, Wilson made fatal mistakes. But his failure in 1919-1920 to win Senate approval of the Versailles Treaty and the League has been inaccurately portrayed as a victory for an isolationist Republican wing led by Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge may have despised Wilson, but he qualifies as an internationalist, one who would have preferred formal defense treaties with France and the U.K., opposing the open ended commitments the League implied. He was dedicated to preserving the authority of the Senate and its policymaking role in an era when the notion of an imperial presidency was still in its infancy. 

Woodrow Wilson was unable to convince Lodge and America that his vision of multilateralism would safeguard the national interest. The Biden administration will confront a Republican Party that, for now, has been transformed by Donald Trump “into a force for populist nationalism, hostile toward international cooperation and skeptical of alliances.” So, when Biden promises to “rally the world to meet our common challenges that no one nation can face on its own” he will be yet again reframing Wilson’s vision. 

No less a realist than Henry Kissinger has observed that it is “to the drumbeat of Wilsonian idealism that American foreign policy has marched since his watershed presidency and continues to march to this day.” Like him or not, Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy ideals have endured. The Biden administration will be marching in his wake. 

Paul C. Atkinson, a former executive at The Wall Street Journal, is a contributing editor of the New York Sun.

Tags Donald Trump Fourteen Points Henry Cabot Lodge Idealism in international relations International relations Joe Biden League of Nations Paris Climate Accords Paris Peace Conference Wilsonianism Woodrow Wilson

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