The dawn of the new millennium finds the United States flirting once again with its old Wilsonian Temptation. When Woodrow Wilson set out to "make the world safe for democracy," he acted with the certainty that Providence had chosen this nation as its agent of global salvation. This was America’s calling and its duty. If we take seriously the rhetoric issuing from the nation’s foreign policy establishment, that remains America’s duty today.
Wilson failed, his diplomacy subverted by Clemenceau and Lloyd George and his vision trumped, in the eyes of some, by Lenin’s own promise of utopia. But ever since, the conviction has persisted that Wilson erred chiefly in being premature. Rippling through the undercurrents of American politics, this conviction periodically resurfaces, shimmering with expectation. The passing of the Cold War has opened the way for the latest such reappearance.
Embarking upon his "war to end all wars," President Wilson promised that the outcome would "bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free." With far less eloquence and little of his moral fervor, Wilson’s successors in the aftermath of the Cold War have embarked upon an analogous quest.
Analogous, but not identical. The melody remains, but the lyrics have changed. For Wilson, politics—above all the creation of a League of Nations—was paramount. His latter-day disciples place economic considerations at the forefront. The new name of the game is globalization. America will export not its political principles—at least not immediately—but its economic precepts and its lifestyle. "Opening" the world to trade, investment, technology, and popular culture will make possible the creation of wealth on a scale hitherto unimaginable. In the wake of abundance will come democracy, peace, and unprecedented opportunities for human fulfillment.
Although paying ritual obeisance to the successor to Wilson’s League, U.S. officials know that the real action has long since moved elsewhere. It’s not the United Nations that counts, but the World Trade Organization, along with Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood—and Washington.
Indeed, the Wilsonian Temptation is enjoying its latest revival not because present-day American leaders identify with the twenty-eighth President himself—for starters, his no-nonsense Presbyterianism clashes with the frothy religiosity of contemporary politics—but because the statement of American purpose that Wilson first formulated has since become irreplaceable. Wilson’s enduring achievement was to reconcile the nation’s origins as an anti-imperial republic with its aspirations to global preeminence. To justify U.S. entry into a war that he abhorred, Wilson gave voice to the ultimate expression of American exceptionalism. Unlike the empires it was soon to supersede, the United States acted not in pursuit of selfish interests but on behalf of universal principles (indistinguishable, according to Wilson, from American principles) and in pursuit of common international interests (an extension, in Wilson’s view, of America’s own interests). So it was in 1917 and so it has once again become today.
A major question of the new millennium’s first century is whether the neo-Wilsonian prophets of globalization will come any closer to achieving their goals than did Wilson himself.
In one sense, the conditions appear to be more favorable. In terms of ideological competitors, American-style democratic capitalism has swept the field. And although Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, and others among the current crop of statesmen are no more given to flights of altruism than were their World War I predecessors, the people they govern have long since lost their stomach for power politics. The nations that once vied with the United States for dominance now receive the honorific title "Great Power" only as a courtesy.
But in another sense, the conditions are less favorable. Woodrow Wilson’s America understood that no achievement comes without cost. "Peace without victory" did not imply peace without sacrifice. In the Republic of Good Times that is Bill Clinton’s America, concepts like self-sacrifice or self-denial appear increasingly antiquated. Indeed, the allure of globalization lies in the expectation that Americans can in the long run do good while in the short term doing very well for themselves. Popular willingness to enlist in this variant of a Wilsonian crusade derives from the promise of gain without pain.
But the paramount lesson of the post-Cold War era’s first decade—made manifest in the Persian Gulf, "Kurdistan," Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Congo, Afghanistan, Russia’s "near abroad," Kosovo, and East Timor—is that the process of globalization won’t advance on autopilot. The second lesson, displayed in the U.S. response to many of those same crises, is that when it comes to enforcing the ground rules of an "open world," the American people balk. They are willing to expend little treasure and less blood.
In short, a yawning gap separates the grand designs of the political class from the willingness of citizens to foot the bill. The story of U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s has been the story of searching for ways to paper over that gap, with cruise missiles, high-altitude bombing, and spurious peacekeeping missions as the preferred instruments. How long the United States can conceal this disparity between national aims and popular will looms as one of the larger questions of the century now beginning.
Andrew J. Bacevich directs the Center for International Relations at Boston University.