America’s Identity Crisis
Woodrow Wilson, The Fourteen Points, & Liberal Foreign Policy
AMERICA: THE OUTSIDER
In the lead up to the Great War, America was always the outsider among the group of world powers. They never impressed their world view outside their sphere of influence and they generally didn’t befriend or antagonize other world powers (besides the brief conflict with Spain). One of the distinct qualities of the pre-1917 American foreign policy was its commitment to isolationism and the Monroe Doctrine. It was a foreign policy strategy that directly contrasted the colonial, interventionist, and factional practices of the dominant world powers found on continental Europe. In 1917, however, the US completely changed its outlook on international affairs. First, in World War I, they intervened on the behalf of the Triple Entente and stopped the Kaiserschlacht (Spring Offensive 1918) to help the allied powers win the Great War. When America was drafting the peace terms, they imposed their world view on the losers when they signed the death warrant of the old, established, and monarchistic powers that Prussia and Austria-Hungary represented. So how did this happen? How did America go from an overall bystander and non-interventionist to the active spreader of democracy and British aligned power that it had become? It’s because of Woodrow Wilson, the rise of the liberal world order, and the emergence of America as a global superpower.
Before 1917, America never exported democracy. Although America would continue to increase its role and influence in continental America with westward expansion, that had much more to do with the economy and territorial gain than anything to do with democratization. In fact, during that period of tremendous growth, America violated international law on numerous occasions, which was the exact opposite of democratization.
Looking back to the earlier stages of the republic, even when other countries were undergoing similar democratic uprisings, like France, America didn’t do that much to help out other democratic movements. For France specifically, even though the French gladly helped the Americans overthrow the British, just decades before, the Americans did nothing to help out the French revolutionaries because they feared retaliation and getting embroiled into a European conflict. Sure, there certainly were great differences between the French Revolution and the American Revolutionary War, in terms of both ideology and power dynamics, but the Americans still had a moral obligation to support the French as a means of repayment from before. An obligation that America never accomplished.
In the late 19th century, however, things were beginning to change. On one hand, America had rendered itself to be an industrial and economic powerhouse, while on the on the other their military still remained a largely backwards self-defense force. Still, they had an increased platform and influence in the international community, which started a long sequence of increased American posturing (flexing their might/capabilities) into areas outside of their traditional sphere of influence. One example of American posturing can be seen in the Spanish American War, in which the United States manufactured a war justification on Spain in order to spread their influence in the Americas and beyond in the Pacific. From this newfound capability, America now saw itself in a position to project their values, thus it wasn’t until 1917 that America began exporting democracy.
AMERICA: THE MEDIATOR
To clarify, America’s transition from a passive to a more assertive country didn’t happen overnight. Instead, it was a gradual process that started with isolation from the global community and ended with America becoming the dominant superpower in international politics. With this transition, there were many years where American fell in between these categorizations of passive and assertive. In the pre-WW1 era, many countries increasingly saw America as a moderate and neutralizing force, which mainly resulted in the US being used as a mediator to pacify international conflicts.
America’s negotiating power at the end of World War 1 wasn’t the first time America played the role of mediator at the end of a conflict. For example, 15 years before the Treaty of Versailles, America was instrumental in bringing Russia and Japan together to conclude the Russo-Japanese War. In fact, acting president Theodore Roosevelt received a Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions in the peace making process between the two powers.
At the conclusion of World War 1, America played the role of mediator again, but this time they were also on the victors’ side of the conference table. Although part of a larger party of victors called “The Big Four,” which were the representatives from the United States, UK, Italy, and France, the US was given a great deal more individual freedom to shape and influence the guiding philosophy of the surrender terms, because many viewed the United States as an impartial actor when in came to European geopolitics.
One can see the great influence of the United States in the various treaties to end the Great War when comparing them to then President Woodrow Wilson’s “14 Points” speech, which outlined America’s vision for what a world post-WW1 would looked like. For example, when Wilson said that “… other nationalities under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development,” the Europeans agreed to do just that when they created states like Armenia, which offered the historically oppressed Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire an opportunity to self-govern (Wilson 33). Sure, agreements like Sykes-Picot, which saw the partitioning of the Middle East between France and the UK, did undermine the idea of self-governance, but that was more a temporary measure during the instability that followed the first world war. After all, countries that were occupied by the UK after WW1, like Iraq, did eventually see their full independence from the British crown only a decade later after forming a stable government. The same thing applied to the various ethnic groups under the former bipartite state of Austria-Hungary, which formed the four separate states of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia.
To be fair, not all of Woodrow Wilsons’s ideas were implemented, especially not his idea of “impartial adjustment of all colonial claims” (decolonization), but a lot of his ideas did go through like his main push for each ethnic group of Europe to have its own state and right to self determination (Wilson 32). Connecting this back to the central theme of a changing American foreign policy, America was only able to make these demands at the end of the great war because of America’s soft power image as a mediating power and their hard power image of wielding a great deal of power in both the militaristic and economic sense. Thus, now with the platform to assert America’s core interest of spreading democracy across the world, Woodrow Wilson was able to advance these interests at the negotiating table when finalizing the terms of the first world war.
AMERICA: THE LIBERATOR
While the “14 Points” were generally received positively by the international community, not everything about American foreign policy changed with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s other liberalist invention, The League of Nations, was universally rejected by the American public and by US policy makers, because it allegedly made “[America] entangled in European politics” (Borah 1). William Borah, former American senator, famously asked, in a speech opposing America joining the LON (League of Nations), why should America “… thrust [itself] into European quarrels; that we have no selfish interest to serve” (Borah 6). In this way, America found itself caught between the desire to project democracy outwards but to remain distant and impartial in European conflicts. This would be an ongoing debate all the way up until the end of World War 2, when American finally acknowledged its superpower status.
In the end, the aftermath of the Wilson presidency ushered in a bit of a identity crisis for American foreign policy that is still experienced to this day. The whole identity crisis started when US lawmakers argued over if America’s approach to international relations should change to reflect their newfound power and platform in the global community.
In one way, the Wilson administration created the foundations to a liberal world order. A world where international law kept states in check and prevented future global conflict. On the other hand, America failed to even support its own creation, as American politicians refused to join the LON on the basis, as established before, that America shouldn’t get too invested with the affairs of far away countries. This created an effect which spiraled into the Second World War, as institutions like the LON, which lacked American backing, ultimately were left with little real power and influence, and thus failed to respond to the international conflicts of that age.
The approach of the United States during the Wilson administration exemplified the potential of a liberal world order. In applying a liberal foreign policy, Wilson called for greater international collaboration in institutions like the League of Nations, promoted democracy by advocating for decolonization, and promoted human rights by demanding for increased opportunity for marginalized people to self-govern. Unfortunately for the president, many of these liberal ideas were held back by the traditional view of international affairs held by many Americans, whom felt that America had no business intervening in other countries’ affairs. Ultimately, this traditionalist approach prevented Wilson’s vision of the world to be enacted, which some may argue created the foundations for a second world war.
BIBLIOGRAPHY & IMAGE CITATIONS
Borah, E. William. “The League Of Nations” The Senate: Classic Speeches, Wendy Wolff, Third Volume, U.S. Senate Historical Office, 1993, pp 569–576 https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/BorahLeague.pdf.
O’brien, Patrick. “Outcomes Of The First World War” Atlas Of World History, Second Edition, Oxford, 2010, pp 220–221.
Wilson, Woodrow. “The Fourteen Points” Essential Readings In World Politics, Mingst, Snyder, Sixth Edition, Norton, 2017, pp 32–33.
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