In Search of a Foreign Policy Vision

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 01/28/07

[Cross-posted at Daily Kos, MyDD, My Left Wing, European Tribune, Nation-Building, Worldwide Sawdust, and dipping my toe in at Never In Our Names.]

On September 25, 1919, the day before he suffered the first of a series of strokes that that would leave him incapacitated for the rest of his life, Woodrow Wilson delivered the last and most brilliant speech of his political career.  The location: Pueblo, Colorado.  The subject: the League of Nations.

The most dangerous thing for a bad cause is to expose it to the opinion of the world.  The most certain way that you can prove that a man is mistaken is by letting all his neighbours know what he thinks, by letting all his neighbours discuss what he thinks, and if he is in the wrong you will notice that he will stay at home, he will not walk on the street.

He will be afraid of the eyes of his neighbours.  He will be afraid of their judgment of his character.  He will know that his cause is lost unless he can sustain it by the arguments of right and of justice.  The same law that applies to individuals applies to nations. …

We must see that all the questions which have disturbed the world, all the questions which have eaten into the confidence of men toward their governments, all the questions which have disturbed the processes of industry, shall be brought out where men of all points of view, men of all attitudes of mind, men of all kinds of experience, may contribute their part of the settlement of the great questions which we must settle and cannot ignore. …

Unless you get the united, concerted purpose and power of the great Governments of the world behind this settlement, it will fall down like a house of cards.  There is only one power to put behind the liberation of mankind, and that is the power of mankind.  It is the power of the united moral forces of the world, and in the Covenant of the League of Nations the moral forces of the world are mobilized. …

And what do they unite for?  They enter into a solemn promise to one another that they will never use their power against one anther for aggression; that they never will impair the territorial integrity of a neighbour; that they never will interfere with the political independence of a neighbour; that they will abide by the principle that great populations are entitled to determine their own destiny and that they will not interfere with that destiny; and that no matter what differences arise amongst them they will never resort to war without first having done one or other of two things – either submitted the matter of controversy to arbitration, in which case they agree to abide by the result without question, or submitted it to the consideration of the council of the League of Nations, laying before that council all the documents, all the facts, agreeing that the council can publish the documents and the facts to the whole world, agreeing that there shall be six months allowed for the mature consideration of those facts by the council, and agreeing that at the expiration of the six months, even if they are not then ready to accept the advice of the council with regard to the settlement of the dispute, they will still not go to war for another three months.

In other words, they consent, no matter what happens, to submit every matter of difference between them to the judgment of mankind, and just so certainly as they do that, my fellow citizens, war will be in the far background, war will be pushed out of that foreground of terror in which it has kept the world for generation after generation, and men will know that there will be a calm time of deliberate counsel.

Woodrow Wilson was many things, not all of them good.  He was a racist who re-segregated the civil service; he was ambivalent about woman suffrage and allowed its proponents to be jailed and force-fed during the war.  He opposed free speech during wartime and sanctioned the infamous Palmer Raids which jailed thousands of conscientious objectors and suspected Communists.

But during the brief span of the Wilsonian moment — from the armistice on November 11, 1918, to Wilson’s collapse less than a year later — Woodrow Wilson held in his hands the liquid fire of the world’s hope.  Wilson was not the originator of the concept of the League of Nations, but he had the audacity to stride into the halls of Europe and demand its creation — and for that brief moment, all the peoples of the world looked to him with awe and expectation.  America, as personified by Wilson, was the savior come to unite the stricken nations in one cause, one purpose, that of eternal peace through law and diplomacy.

The worldwide acceptance of American exceptionalism during the Wilsonian moment is every neoconservative’s dream, and indeed Wilson’s militarism and internationalism may sound suspiciously neoconservative to liberal ears.  Writing at TPMCafe, G. John Ikenberry explains the distinction:

The “liberal internationalist” impulse was articulated later during the Great War in the Fourteen Points address and in proposals for collective security and the League of Nations. This sentiment was stated perhaps most clearly in the summer of 1918 as the war was reaching its climax. Wilson gave his July 4th address at Mount Vernon and described his vision of postwar order: “What see seek is the reign of law, based on the consent of the governed and sustained by the organized opinion of mankind.”

…Wilson’s vision was deeply progressive. The world could be made anew. The old world of autocracy, militarism, and despotism could be overturned and a new world of democracy and rule of law was over the horizon. America had a leading role to play in this progressive world-historical drama, but the forces of history were already moving the world in this direction. America was God’s chosen midwife of progressive change.

Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter like to emphasize the “liberty under law” aspect of Wilson’s thinking as distinct from the lawlesslessness of neoconservatives.  I think, however, the stronger difference between them is demonstrated by Ikenberry’s final sentence.  Wilson was unquestionably an American exceptionalist; but while he may in fact have seen America as “God’s chosen midwife of progressive change,” it was progressive change itself that represented for him the final apotheosis of civilization.  In fact, Wilson said as much in his Pueblo speech:

Let us accept what America has always fought for, and accept it with pride that America showed the way and made the proposal.  I do not mean that America made the proposal in this particular instance; I mean that the principle was an American principle, proposed by America.

Thus, Wilson was uninterested in a show of American power; he sought only to promote the “principles” of liberal democracy that America embodied.

Wilson’s embrace of the American ideals rather than American nationalism stands in stark contrast to neoconservative pretensions.  An analysis of Francis Fukuyama’s much-maligned yet seminal neoconservative essay The End of History demonstrates the difference between the two philosophies.  In Fukuyama’s view, “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea,” has automatically occurred because American capitalism triumphed over Russian Communism; Fukuyama is now content to cease innovating, to abandon the international field to “economic calculation” and “the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”  But the same political and military triumph over the absolutist Central Powers did not satisfy Wilson in 1918.  Wilson recognized that a military triumph by America served American power alone; a victory of ideas could only be achieved through a formal diplomatic confluence of “the united moral force of the world.”

And because Wilson was willing to sacrifice American nationalism for international democratic idealism, America’s international stature was, paradoxically, greatly elevated.  August Heckscher, in his excellent biography of Wilson, notes that the crowds that met the American President upon his arrival in Europe were nothing short of astounding:

…The reception Wilson received, in numbers and in the fervor of its adulation, perhaps exceeded any previously accorded to any mortal.  First in France, and then in Great Britain and Italy, he became the focus of all the pent-up emotions generated at the war’s end.  To the common people, longing for permanent peace, he alone appeared to have the key.

Scenes and images from that time linger as a vital part of twentieth-century legend: the frenzied ranks of humanity where he passed, the chorus of faith poured out as if by one exultant voice; flowers in his path, hands stretched out to touch the charismatic figure, the pictures of the lean Calvinist visage lighted by candles in the homes of laborer and peasant.  The great personages of the time, the kings and heads of state, responding to this tumult — indeed not daring to fail to respond to it — yielded him extraordinary honors.  Whatever reserves they harbored, or whatever conflicting emotions ran below the surface of the crowd, there streamed for a few brief weeks the light of a pure, an almost holy dedication; and Wilson was placed by destiny at its center. (p.495)

Lloyd Ambrosius argues that Wilson’s plan contained a fatal flaw in enforcement because there is no such thing as “world moral opinion,” and he may be right.  But the critical point here is that Wilson approached foreign policy not as a series of situations to be dealt with but as an arena for the exercise of formative vision; he sought to get out ahead of the petty crises of the day by waging preemptive diplomacy in search of a just and lasting world peace.

Today, America finds itself in a foreign policy crisis.  Such crises call for visionary and comprehensive solutions, not simple stopgap measures designed to postpone a reckoning with the central issues.  America has faced three such crises during the past century.  In response to the first, Woodrow Wilson conceived and promoted the League of Nations and the Fourteen Points; in response to the second, Harry Truman worked with George Marshall to implement the Marshall Plan and with George Kennan to institute the policy of containment.

Yet today, our Democratic Presidential candidates are strangely lacking in foreign policy vision.  Certainly there are those who make pulling out of Iraq a highlight of Iraq a highlight of their rhetoric; yet this is only a necessary solution to a temporary problem.  Where are the comprehensive foreign policy proposals that America so desperately needs?

Among our candidates, John Edwards and Barack Obama are certainly visionaries, but their platforms are primarily domestic — Edwards focuses on poverty, while Obama cultivates a mix of social-welfare and government reform issues.  Hillary Clinton, Tom Vilsack, and Chris Dodd seem unable to articulate a vision about anything.  Joe Biden, a man with much foreign policy experience, prefers the sound of his own voice to substantive policy proposals.  Wes Clark, another potential candidate experienced in foreign policy, spares not one sentence of his “100 year vision” for foreign policy.  Al Gore supports international cooperation on the environment, but he has not given a major foreign policy address in years.

Of all the candidates, Bill Richardson stands out as easily the most qualified and visionary on American foreign policy.  A four-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and former U.N. Ambassador, Richardson has in past demonstrated a commitment to liberal internationalism that goes beyond the statements of other candidates.  For instance, here’s what Richardson had to say about the United Nations in 1997:

The United Nations is a very important tool for advancing American foreign policy interests and building international support for U.S. foreign policy goals.

Specifically, the United Nations is an arena for handling some of the major problems faced by the United States and the world — problems such as nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, drugs, environmental degradation, regional conflicts based on tribal or ethnic differences, economic competition.

We feel that the United States can best advance its interests, and save taxpayer money, by approaching these transnational problems in a multinational fashion, building support for American goals multilaterally. And the United Nations is the best vehicle to achieve these goals.

In addition, the United Nations is the venue for advancing American interests in promoting human rights, supporting democracy, dealing with refugees, and furthering the causes of women. For these reasons the United Nations is a very important venue in which to deal with our problems.

In his campaign announcement speech, Richardson was the only candidate to place foreign policy issues first and foremost among the reasons for his candidacy:

“I am taking this step because we have to repair the damage that’s been done to our country over the last six years,” said Richardson. “Our reputation in the world is diminished, our economy has languished, and civility and common decency in government has perished.”

“The next president of the United States must get our troops out of Iraq without delay. Before I became Governor of New Mexico, I served as Ambassador to the United Nations and as Secretary of Energy. I know the Middle East well and it’s clear that our presence in Iraq isn’t helping any longer,” said Richardson.

Finally, Richardson’s website contains a paragraph (poorly titled “National Security/Foreign Policy”) that addresses all the important points with regard to international affairs:

Our next President must be able to restore our standing in the world and I believe I’m the best candidate to do that as well. As someone who has successfully negotiated with some of the world’s toughest tyrants, I know face-to-face diplomacy can work. To become a respected international leader again, we need a national security policy that is tough and smart, a military second to none, a firm commitment to building diplomatic alliances, we need to defeat terrorism, and that’s our number one national security challenge, we need to promote freedom, alleviate poverty, and stop global warming. The current administration has done none of those things and that means the next president must be able to get started in the first hundred days, again with a clear agenda and proven ability to get the job done.

Even with his expertise and rhetorical emphasis on foreign policy, Richardson has yet to articulate a strong and comprehensive vision for America’s role in modern diplomacy.  However, he continues to be active on the international scene, having just met with North Korean leaders and brokered a cease-fire in Darfur.  These are hopeful signs that the most experienced foreign-policy Presidential candidate in twenty years will use his experience to advance visionary international policies.

As for the other candidates, it is still very, very early in the campaign season, and we will likely hear much more from them in future on issues that matter to the world at large.  Whatever the case, every 2008 candidate would do well to remember the closing words of Wilson’s Pueblo speech, which ring down through history as the final testament of a man worth emulating, a man whose public life was characterized by courage, prescience, and an unerring belief in the vitality of peace:

There is one thing that the American people always rise to and extend their hand to, and that is the truth of justice and of liberty and of peace.  We have accepted that truth and we are going to be led by it, and it is going to lead us, and through us the world, out into pastures of quietness and peace such as the world never dreamed of before.


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