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.
Doctrines in flux
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.
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.
This article was originally published on The Conversation UK on May 24th, 2017. Link.
On May the 6th, I will be presenting a paper at the “Trump’s America” conference hosted by the Clinton Institute at UCD.
I will be part of a panel focusing on US foreign policy.
The abstract of my presentation is below:
Could President Trump represent a major break with the tradition of US democracy promotion in the Middle East? Wilsonianism has long represented one of the most influential approaches in the tradition of US foreign policy. The focus of Wilsonianism has been on the advancement of US values abroad, especially of liberal democratic values. Accordingly, US foreign policy rhetoric has commonly referred to the promotion of US values to describe and justify US international behavior. Evidence from the 2016 US presidential campaign and President Donald Trump’s first months in office indicates that this may no longer be the case, especially with regard to the Middle East. Many commentators have consistently argued that the new president has completely dropped the Wilsonian aspects of US foreign policy; therefore breaking with more than 100 years of US foreign policy.
In this paper, I will:
1) maintain that Trump’s departure from Wilsonianism may be a temporary phenomenon likely to change during his time in office. To make this argument I will present historical evidence of similar dynamics playing out during the George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations.
2) identify the key reasons, at both the national and systemic levels, that could explain Wilsonianism’s past, present, and future resilience as a core approach to US foreign policy.
This piece originally appeared on online publication The Wire on 25th January 2017.
Last Friday (January 20), I followed the presidential inauguration from the US embassy in Dublin. As in many other world capitals, politicians, experts and average citizens gathered to watch the event live. Most of the subsequent commentary has generally pointed to how the new President Donald Trump represents a marked break with the past. Supporters have argued that he is an outsider who does not belong to the inefficient and self-serving political establishment at Washington. Critics have noted that after a very divisive presidential campaign, he has showed no serious interest in mending fences with those Americans who did not vote for him. Tellingly, his main campaign challenger, Hillary Clinton, received no mention at all during the inaugural speech. Trump himself has also actively contributed to the popularity of this idea of ‘breaking with the past’. On inauguration day, he described his presidency as a momentous shift,
“We assembled here today, are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.”
In sum, both supporters and critics see the new president as a bearer of change. I recognise that Trump has his own peculiar way of communicating. However, how does Trump’s rhetoric fit within the broader tradition of the US’s political discourse? Did his inaugural address offer us unequivocal signs of change?
To begin with, Trump in his address extensively referred to religion and god. He directly quoted the Psalm 133 from the Bible, when he said, “the Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” But the political discourse in the US featured references to religion and god even before the actual creation of the country. As early as in the 16th and 17th centuries, Puritan settlers from England and Scotland identified North America with the New World, the New Israel, the New Jerusalem and a religious special place whose inhabitants were blessed by god. Moreover, key documents of the US contain religious references. The 1776 Declaration of Independence, for instance, is filled with references to nature’s god, the creator, divine providence and the supreme judge of the world. Finally, the expression ‘God Bless America’ has been the traditional way for a US president to end a public speech.
A second theme of Trump’s rhetoric that clearly fits into the broader tradition of the US political discourse is that of leading the world by example. The new president stated that, “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow.” Here, Trump drew on the words of John Winthrop, a devout 17th century Puritan and leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who said that, “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” The same image was later used by successive US presidents. John Quincy Adams, in one of his most recalled quotes, affirmed that the US, “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.” More recently, John F. Kennedy declared, “Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us – and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill”.
This leads us to the third and final theme – populist nationalism. President Trump announced that “from this day forward” the policy of his administration – “it’s going to be only America first.” The phrase ‘America First’ is often associated with the America First Committee, which strove to prevent the US entry into WWII. However, the idea of putting the US’s interests before anything else is part and parcel of what American academic Walter Russell Mead called the Jacksonian tradition in US politics, named after US president Andrew Jackson. According to Mead, Jacksonians hold that “the most important goal of the US government […] should be the physical security and the economic well-being of the American people”. These are the same themes President Trump has been reiterating since the campaign trail.
So going back to my original question about whether Trump’s rhetoric is in line with the tradition of US political discourse, this piece has offered evidence of clear continuity. Although I acknowledge the idiosyncrasy of some of Trump’s statements, his extensive use of references to religion, leading by example and populist nationalism perfectly reflects themes that have characterised US politics since before the US came into being.
My brief comment on the security implications of Trump’s election for the future of North Atlantic relations as part of an article on ‘the five things President Trump could mean for Italy’ published on The Local Italy.
…As for security, Trump criticized NATO throughout his campaign, arguing that other countries in the alliance weren’t pulling their weight. Eugenio Lilli, a lecturer in US Foreign Policy at Rome’s John Cabot University, told The Local: “Perhaps something may change in the security relationship between the two countries given Trump’s statements concerning NATO and the EU.
In fact, Trump has questioned America’s alliances and commitments, and argued that US ‘protection’ should be in exchange for payment. However, I am not sure how and if these statements will actually result in a significant change of policies.”
Read the full article here
We are continuously reminded by the media about the reasons why Donald Trump is NOT a good candidate to the US presidency. Few articles, instead, have investigated why significant numbers of Republican voters have supported him throughout the primaries and beyond.
The BBC interviewed a number of Trump’s supporters and came up with six arguments in favor of Trump’s election. Here they are:
- He is not a politician. “Donald Trump is very real and very sincere. We’re tired of being cheated. The more they try to attack him, the more we love him.”
- He tells the truth. “He’s outspoken. Other candidates wouldn’t tell you how it is, but he does.”
- They value his business experience. “I think I’ve seen him really successful as a businessman, so I’d like to see how he’d be as a leader of the United States.”
- They agree with him on Mexicans and Muslims. “We need to close the borders… It has to be done the right way and they can’t just come into our country and expect us to take care of them, take our jobs, and then for us to have to support them, and all the things America has to do to help them out. “
- He will make America Great Again. “Trump has instilled hope in people. If he does what he says he’s gonna do, we would be less fearful.”
- Why do WOMEN support Trump? One idea is that his offensive comments on women have “nothing to do with running the country”. Besides, some countries abroad will even respect America more since “they are anti-feminist over there”.
You can find the full article here
A survey of US military personnel found that Donald Trump was the preferred presidential candidate among people on active duty. Support for him was twice that for the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton. On a negative note for both, over a fifth said they would rather not vote in November if the choice was between the two.
Read more on the survey here