Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Wilsonians, part I

The Statue of Liberty has no wings; she is not an angel. The nation that reveres her often does things unwise or unjust. Like Athens, like Rome, like America. The motives of a great republic on the world stage are never pure; self-interest and idealism always find a balance, and the decision made and pursued usually is a matrix point that satisfies both.

But the balance between them is never perfect, and at times high idealism holds power in Washington. This "neo-con" administration seems to be such a time. History-minded Americans seeking a kindred age to ours could do worse than compare the current scene to Woodrow Wilson's administration and its aftermath -- World War I and the 1920s.

Under Wilson's presidency, as the war in Europe slowly drew America in, the idea of spreading freedom and democracy came more and more to the fore in America's foreign policy. George W. Bush is not a neo-con, and that group of thinkers forms just one part of the mix in his administration. But they have had the run of foreign policy for the past few years, so it is possible to speak of the administration in their terms, if foreign policy is the topic.

It's also been said that Bush's policies are "Wilsonian" -- motivated in large part by "idealistic" notions that America's blessings of liberty and democracy are the right of people everywhere, and our duty is to spread them and to roll back tyranny and repression.

But this is hardly unique; every American president since the start of the Cold War has been more or less a Wilsonian.

Bush and Wilson have been compared on a personal level: both deeply religious men whose background in American Southern culture colored their perceptions of social relations and power.

When Wilson turned from the president who won re-election because he "kept us out of war," to the leader who dispatched American leathernecks to the battlefields of Flanders, he used crusader rhetoric. So did George W. Bush, at first, before he backed away from it because it was toxic to Muslims. His abandonment of the word was the smart thing to do, but nonetheless it is the right word, because it embodies the notion of a war for a higher ideal than self-interest.

America's unique qualities made it uniquely suited to this job. As Wilson said, "Only free peoples can hold their purpose and their honour steady to a common end and prefer the interests of mankind to any narrow interest of their own."


When America entered World War I, it contributed more than just the divisions of troops that tilted the balance on the Western Front. It infused an old European power struggle with an entirely new and world-transforming mission -- a crusade.

Wilson's war message to Congress described German unrestricted submarine warfare (the immediate cause of America's entry into the fight) as "a warfare against mankind." Wilson said "The wrongs against which we now array ourselves are no common wrongs; they cut to the very roots of human life."

He laid out a pre-emptive doctrine, in a situation where the practical realities of warfare had gotten ahead of the international laws and customs regarding hostilities. The international system was broken, because it had not been made to address such attacks as America was suffering.

Because submarines are in effect outlaws when used as the German submarines have been used against merchant shipping, it is impossible to defend ships against their attacks as the law of nations has assumed that merchantmen would defend themselves against privateers or cruisers, visible craft giving chase upon the open sea. It is common prudence in such circumstances, grim necessity indeed, to endeavour to destroy them before they have shown their own intention. They must be dealt with upon sight, if dealt with at all. The German Government denies the right of neutrals to use arms at all within the areas of the sea which it has proscribed, even in the defense of rights which no modern publicist has ever before questioned their right to defend. The intimation is conveyed that the armed guards which we have placed on our merchant ships will be treated as beyond the pale of law and subject to be dealt with as pirates would be.

This ought to sound familiar. After the al Qaida attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many international legal experts -- even those not hysterically afraid of American power -- looked over the laws and treaties and decided that, while it was pretty clear that al Qaida, though stateless, would qualify as a belligerent power, it was not at all clear that the U.S. had any legal authority to take the only kind of military action that could crush it.

Another American president had found himself in a similar quandry; when South Carolina seceded in 1860, James Buchanan asked his attorney general, Jeremiah Black (an honest Pennsylvanian who later served Lincoln, too), to outline the constitutional position on the matter. Black concluded that, in effect, the secession was illegal, but the executive branch had been given no power to do anything about it.

Buchanan acted accordingly, scrupulously constitutional to the end. Lincoln followed him and in essence ignored the Constitution, forced the union to hold together, and let Congress write the necessary changes after the fact. No bonus points for guessing which leader is revered in history and which routinely makes the "five worst presidents" list.

Wilson's address also lays out a broader and grander purpose for America in this war: to spread freedom and democracy, and in effect to establish a new world order. America's object "is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles."

In such a struggle, "where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples," and where the threat to civilization comes from powerful autocrats not answerable to anyone but themselves, Wilson said, neutrality was impossible.

But even at its height, Wilsonian policy was not without self-interest. Instead, it merged idealism and self-interest. Spreading global democracy was in America's interest, because democratic nations are inclined to peace. They would be less likely to threaten America.

His call to arms reached a ringing conclusion:

We are now about to accept gage of battle with this natural foe to liberty and shall, if necessary, spend the whole force of the nation to check and nullify its pretensions and its power. We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretence about them, to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them."

... It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts -- for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, 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. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.

[To be continued]