WHETHER HE REALIZED it or not, President Obama invoked Woodrow Wilson in his State of the Union address this year when he said: “We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies.” Nearly a century ago, Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to seek a declaration of war against Germany, proclaiming that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” We would fight Germany not for conquest or “selfish ends,” but “for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”
At the time, Wilson’s notions about American power and international security were novel, but they would become the foundation of the modern international system. Principled international cooperation under the aegis of American leadership is the essence of Wilsonianism, and American presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Obama have to varying degrees subscribed to its tenets: the spread of democracy, self-determination, territorial integrity, and the rights of small nations. In a sense, we are all Wilsonians now. But although Wilson gets credit for imagining what would later become the United Nations and the present-day international system, he is also blamed for injecting ill-defined, contradictory principles into the political chaos of postwar Europe, failing to secure Senate approval of the Treaty of Versailles, and clinging to a view of international affairs that was at best idealized and at worst dangerously naive. Before America entered the war, Wilson called for a “peace made secure by the organized major force of mankind,” yet his League of Nations had no force behind it to sustain the peace, and his Fourteen Points proved a poor guide for the fledgling nations that emerged from the rubble of the old empires of Europe and the Middle East.
What exactly did Wilson have in mind? If he was an idealist, what was his ideal vision for America in a new world order? One recent book challenges the conventional notion that Wilson was truly a progressive liberal internationalist — that he was “Wilsonian” in the sense that we understand the term today. In The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916–1931, Yale historian Adam Tooze argues that upon the outbreak of war in 1914, Wilson, far from being progressive in his view of international affairs, clung to a conservatism that looked back to the relative peace and stability of the late 19th century. We tend to think the modern world was born in the mud and trenches of the Western front, where the Great Powers of Europe unleashed the full fury of industrial warfare. But for America, modernity came earlier, in the fires and bloodletting of the Civil War. Having survived that cataclysm, American leaders were determined to avoid being pulled into the Great Power rivalries that marked the volatile new age of late-19th-century global imperialism.
It’s easy to forget that Wilson, born in 1856, witnessed the Civil War firsthand. He watched General Robert E. Lee pass through his hometown of Staunton, Virginia, under Union guard after the surrender at Appomattox, and later saw the devastation of Reconstruction in the South. Above all, writes Tooze, Wilson wanted to avoid an entanglement in Europe’s own civil war: “The central purpose of two generations of American progressives was to hold at bay the disruptive ideologies and social forces of the twentieth century, so as not to disturb this new American equilibrium.” Before America entered the war, Wilson pushed for a “peace without victory.” By refusing to join Britain and France, he would deprive them of the ability to impose a settlement on the Central Powers that would preserve their own Great Power status. For Wilson, the end of the war should bring about nothing less than the end of European Imperialism. Taking sides would be a “crime against civilization,” because it would perpetuate Europe’s cycle of violence: “Victory would mean peace forced upon the loser,” he said. “It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand.”
Wilson’s aims did not change once he accepted, in the spring of 1917, that America would have to enter the war on the side of the Entente. “Having failed in his effort to force an end to the war from without,” writes Tooze, “Wilson was determined to shape the order of a new world from within” — and a peace without victory remained his goal. Such a peace, Wilson thought, “could be upheld without a costly international security system,” because once the world saw that war had lost its utility, the League of Nations would be self-sustaining. The important thing was to ensure that no European powers emerged as victors. Tooze makes a compelling case that Wilson’s aim, both before and after America joined the war, was to create a system in which “the exceptional position of America at the head of world civilization would be inscribed on the gravestone of European power.” That Wilson thought such a thing possible without America acting as a postwar guarantor of international security reveals a deep naïveté and reckless idealism on his part. He wanted to rid the world of European imperialism, but in the process didn’t want to enmesh America in the affairs of Europe or commit American troops or treasure to secure peace in the new post-imperial world. In that sense, Tooze is correct to suggest that Wilson was not very Wilsonian at all, and that his vision for American involvement in the world was fundamentally conservative.
Tooze spends much of his book chronicling the effects of Wilson’s refusal — along with his successors — to forgive interallied debt after the war, which made it impossible for Britain and France to relax demands for steep reparations from Germany. A toxic cycle of debt payments and reparations weakened Europe’s economy in the interwar years and eventually brought on financial collapse and a political crisis in Germany that propelled the Nazi Party to power in 1933. America would be forced to assume the role of guarantor after World War II precisely because of its failure to do so during and after World War I. Tooze doesn’t fault Wilson for this failure as much as he should, but does note that this post–World War II militarized great power status “was precisely the destiny from which progressives of Wilson’s and Hoover’s stripe had hoped to escape.” Yet the failure to accept such a status all but ensured Wilson’s vision of disarmament and world peace would never be realized. It would instead spawn something far worse.
If Wilson sought to forge a world free from the imperialist rivalries of Europe and set it upon the high road of democracy and disarmament, his counterparts in Europe aspired to something rather different but no less radical. Alexander Watson’s remarkable book Ring of Steel — the first comprehensive history of the war written from the perspective of the Central Powers — posits that contrary to the prevailing view among most contemporary historians, Germany and Austria-Hungary took the first step toward war not because of rampant militarism or imperial ambition but because they reasoned that given their strategic situation they had no choice. They believed they were fighting a defensive war that had been foisted on them. Although he doesn’t directly challenge the general consensus among historians about the Central Powers’ culpability for starting the war, Watson undermines the idea that European leaders stumbled blindly into a conflict they did not comprehend and whose outcome they could not imagine. They were no sleepwalkers. Like Wilson, the emperors of Europe envisioned an entirely new postwar world.
In the case of Germany and Austria-Hungary, Watson argues they could hardly avoid it. The Central Powers understood well what any map made obvious in 1914: they were surrounded. The people of Central Europe “imagined themselves as barricaded and besieged within a great fortress” — and with good reason. To Germany’s east loomed the forces of Tsarist Russia, which poured into eastern Prussia upon the outbreak of war, just as Germany’s military planners had predicted. When Britain joined on the side of France and Russia, the German Reich’s only hope was a long shot: win a quick victory in the west and then pivot to the east. But the likelihood that Germany could transport millions of troops across the empire in time to stop a Russian invasion was always slim at best. “Fear, not aggression or unrestrained militarism, propelled the Central Powers to war in the summer of 1914,” Watson argues. “Rulers in both countries believed that they faced an imminent existential threat.”
The early weeks of the war in August 1914 would validate their fears. Russia’s push into eastern Prussia sent 800,000 refugees west, bringing with them accounts of Tsarist atrocities. German fears of rampaging Cossacks were confirmed by the sheer destruction that accompanied the Russian invasion. In addition to massive civilian casualties, “three-fifths of [East Prussia’s] small towns and more than a quarter of its villages and farms were scarred or ruined.” Later, Britain’s naval blockade defined food as contraband and deprived Germany of the imported grain upon which it depended, threatening the civilian population with starvation. In Austria-Hungary, the early loss of Galician farmland to Russia would prove a catastrophe. The empire’s situation would worsen when Romania, a vital source of food imports, entered the war on the side of the Entente in the fall of 1916.
The war therefore confirmed the worst fears of the Central Powers — fears that had been percolating for years. Despite outward appearances, Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not stable. Ever since the unified German state had been declared in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in 1871, following the Franco-Prussian War, Europe had entered a new era of economic interdependence, rapid development, and instability. Germany’s expanding population, economic vitality, and military prowess all presented a new challenge to the French Republic and the British Empire. Soon after Kaiser Wilhelm II took the throne in 1888 he forced Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the author of German unification, to resign. The young Wilhelm, unable to manage growing Balkan tensions between Austria-Hungary and Russia, allowed a defensive treaty with Russia to lapse, dissolving the League of Three Emperors and driving Russia into an alliance with France. By the inauguration in 1897 of the Reich’s “World Policy” to secure “a place in the sun” alongside the other imperial powers, the stage was set for confrontation.
If Germany was a destabilizing force as an imperial newcomer, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was unstable despite its veneer of tradition and permanence. The House of Habsburg had ruled over a sprawling, multiethnic kingdom in central Europe for five centuries, and its head, Franz Joseph, had been on the imperial throne since 1848. His subjects saw him as a pillar of constancy and continuity in an epoch marked by disruption and change. Yet Habsburg military and diplomatic leaders considered the empire’s international position untenable. The immediate problem was the Balkans. A coup in 1903 transformed Serbia from a Habsburg satellite to an adversary bent on creating a larger pan-Serbian state. The Balkan wars of 1912–’13 ended five hundred years of Ottoman rule in the region and raised the specter of a Serbian-Russian plot to dismember Austria-Hungary. Habsburg leaders believed they were being forced into a radical position by outside forces and that drastic measures would be necessary to keep the realm intact. They were “desperate men,” writes Watson. “They were ruthless because they felt they had nothing to lose.”
The Central Powers were also radical in their visions for postwar Europe. German Generals Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg, who took charge of the German war effort in 1916, planned Ober Ost, a militarized slave state in Eastern Europe that would serve as the granary for a continental German Empire and, as Ludendorff put it, a “breeding grounds for people, who will be necessary for further fights.” French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau dreamt of repealing the Peace of Westphalia and breaking Germany apart, while German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg aspired to create Mitteleuropa, a “central European economic association through common customs treaties,” dominated by German economic might.
In this company, Wilson’s scheme to eclipse the old empires by imposing a “peace without victory” doesn’t seem all that radical — and by comparison it wasn’t. But his vision of peace was woefully disconnected from the solemn responsibilities that it would require of America. By the measure of his liberal progressive successor, FDR, Wilson was not nearly Wilsonian enough, and in that he shares something with the current US president. In his State of the Union address and in the months since, Obama has continually assured the country that all is well in the world thanks to the leadership of the United States. Russia is isolated, Iran is cooperating with the West on a nuclear deal, China has reconciled itself to the established international system, ISIS is in retreat, and our military involvement in Iraq and the Middle East is winding down.
Average Americans can be forgiven for feeling alarmed that the president continues to paint a picture of the world so at odds with what they’ve become accustomed to reading in the news. Far from being in retreat, ISIS has branched out from Iraq and Syria and is now launching attacks in Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, even as Boko Haram shores up its own Islamic terror state in Nigeria. Iran is stalling in nuclear talks with the US while making overtures to Russia and funding terror groups across the Middle East. China is pressing its territorial claims against neighbors. American military forces are trickling back into a shattered Iraq.
At the same time Obama was delivering his State of the Union address in January, the largest European tank battle since World War II was raging in Eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian rebel forces — including Russian military forces — seized control of the Donetsk Airport on January 21 after a 240-day battle. A week earlier, Poland airlifted hundreds of ethnic Poles out of Eastern Ukraine and moved them to refugee camps in Poland. Months before that, Poland announced it was moving thousands of troops to its eastern border in a historic military realignment prompted by the conflict in Ukraine. Now, growing numbers of Poles are joining volunteer paramilitary groups and receiving basic military training in preparation for a possible Russian invasion. All of this follows Russia’s annexation of Crimea last March and a pro-Russian separatist uprising that has killed more than 6,000 people and forced more than one million civilians from eastern Ukraine since fighting began last April. Despite a tenuous cease-fire agreement in February, sporadic fighting continues along the front as Western leaders debate whether and how to aid Ukraine.
Far from American power shepherding along the stable spread of peace and democracy, we’re witnessing a world in which the international arrangements of the past century are beginning to fray. In some cases they have already come apart. From Eastern Ukraine south to Iraq and west to the coast of North Africa, Wilsonianism, as such, is in short supply. For as much as Obama invokes Wilson’s notions about protecting the rights of small nations and the inevitable triumph of democracy, he shares Wilson’s misplaced idealism that those things can be secured through international cooperation, without a militarized superpower to impose order and guarantee security. He imagines that most of the world believes, as he does and as Wilson did, that war has lost its utility. Thanks to the meticulous work of Tooze and Watson we now have a better understanding of the fragility of Wilson’s vision for international order. Twenty-two years after the end of the Great War, the world would find out just how dangerous that vision could be. Today, nearly one hundred years later, it is more dangerous still.
John Daniel Davidson is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He is a senior contributor at The Federalist and his writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Texas Monthly, National Review, First Things, n+1, The Morning News, and elsewhere.