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.
In a recent televised forum, which took place at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan, presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump offered a preview of the incoming presidential debates.
Showing many differences in both style and substance, the two candidates discussed several issues, including security and foreign policy (i.e. use of force, the war in Iraq in 2003, US intervention in Libya in 2011, the Iran nuclear deal, and ISIS among others).
Here are the links to the full videos of Clinton’s and Trump’s appearances:
This is my latest contribution to the peer reviewed Journal of Terrorism Research published by Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, St Andrews University, UK.
In 2011, the Arab Awakening offered an opportunity to the Obama administration to advance the US interest to counter terrorism in the Greater Middle East without compromising its commitment to the promotion of democracy. As of early 2015, however, with the exception of still-hopeful Tunisia, democracy has not made any significant progress in Middle Eastern countries. Additionally, old and new regional extremist groups have become increasingly active. How did the Obama administration miss the opportunity offered by the Arab Awakening? What actions could the United States take to reverse current unfavorable trends and advance US policies of counterterrorism and democratization in the region?
On 4 March 2015 Professor Inderjeet Parmar was the keynote speaker at the inaugural Strife / United States Foreign Policy Research Group conference that I helped to organize at King’s College London.
The title of the conference was “A world in flux? Analysis and prospects for the US in global security.”
Inderjeet Parmar is Professor in International Politics at City University London. He has authored seven book on US policy, including “Barack Obama and the Myth of a Post-racial America” (2013) and “Foundations of the American Century” (2012). He also served as President of the British International Studies Association (BISA).
Here is the link to the podcast of Parmar’s very informative keynote speech on US foreign policy during the Obama presidency.