US President Woodrow Wilson justified the US’s 1917 entry into World War I with the famous words: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” That was exactly a century ago and marked the beginning of the doctrine known as “Wilsonianism” – broadly speaking, a conviction that the US has a vital interest in promoting liberal democratic norms abroad.
One way or another, Wilsonianism has had a prominent role in US foreign policy ever since its founder first articulated it. But now, exactly a century after the US entered World War I, another president is supposedly keen to put an end to it.
Throughout the latest US presidential campaign and during his first hundred-odd days in office, Donald Trump has repeatedly rejected traditional Wilsonian ideas of promoting US values and interests abroad. He openly questioned the idea that the US is “innocent” of foreign policy misdeeds, and on a recent visit to Saudi Arabia said he was “not here to lecture” other countries about what they do within their borders.
He’s also harshly criticised previous US policies of “nation-building” aimed at expanding the community of democracies, and even publicly praised autocratic foreign strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He also displays contempt for liberal democratic norms such as press freedom and religious liberty.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s statements have elicited strong reactions within and outside the US, some commentators accusing him of “making the world safe for dictators”, while human rights watchdogs call him a “real risk” (Amnesty International USA) and a “threat” (Human Rights Watch) to the post-World War II international human rights system.
But does the Trump presidency really spell the end of Wilsonianism in US foreign policy? I would argue otherwise. Yes, Trump has adamantly and consistently shunned traditional Wilsonian objectives, but Wilsonianism has been prematurely counted out before – including under both of Trump’s immediate predecessors.
When George W Bush first ran for president in 2000, he clearly seemed to prefer great-power realism to idealistic notions such as democracy promotion. His famous 2000 line, “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building”, was frequently interpreted as evidence of a less-than-Wilsonian worldview.
Doctrines in flux
It remains unclear whether Bush’s scepticism at the time was the expression of deeply held convictions or part of an effort to distance himself from the Clinton administration, which had put nation-building and democracy promotion high up its agenda. But whatever Bush’s real ideological attachments when he ran for the presidency, everything changed with the 9/11 attacks.
The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
A similar dynamic played out during Barack Obama’s first term. In his early days, many observers and thinkers surmised that Obama was turning his back on Wilsonianism as a pillar of US foreign policy. They pointed to his willingness to engage personally with non-democratic governments; his administration’s slow and principally rhetorical response to the Iranian government’s crackdown on democratic protests in 2009; and the fact that he chose not to make democracy promotion a headline item of his renowned 2009 Cairo Speech, in which he set out a vision for the US’s place in the world.
But as with Bush, there are alternative explanations besides ideology.
The new president obviously had a strong interest in putting some distance between his administration and Bush’s, especially when it came to democracy promotion – an idea that had been badly tainted by Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and other War on Terror policies. And as they did with Bush, events caught up with Obama.
Regardless of his personal philosophy, the outbreak of the Arab Awakening in late 2010 and its apotheosis in spring 2011 unquestionably brought Wilsonian themes back to the forefront of Obama’s foreign policy. In May 2011, Obama went so far as to say:
Our support for [Wilsonian] principles is not a secondary interest – today I am making it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal. Let me be specific. First, it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy …
Now, even as we promote political reform, even as we promote human rights in the region, our efforts can’t stop there. So the second way that we must support positive change in the region is through our efforts to advance economic development for nations that are transitioning to democracy.
Then came Trump. He campaigned hard as an anti-establishment candidate, specifically was anti-Hillary Clinton. Perhaps because Clinton is a former secretary of state, Trump riffed on his supposedly extreme contrast with her into his foreign policy rhetoric: “We must abandon the failed policy of nation-building and regime change that Hillary Clinton pushed in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria.”
During the campaign, his pronouncements were often discussed as the words of a radical isolationist – but any commitments he had may yet wither in the face of events.
As did many of their predecessors, both Bush and Obama ultimately invoked Wilsonian themes to attract domestic and international support for specific actions. Is it really unreasonable to think that if (or when) he’s faced with an acute international crisis, Trump will do the same? Yes, he may yet turn out to be a genuine threat to Wilsonianism – but its sheer endurance across so many presidencies implies that even this idiosyncratic, volatile commander-in-chief might not kill it off.