For 100 years, the Wilson Doctrine defined American foreign policy, whether applied affirmatively or, under Obama, negatively. Trump is changing all that.
When the Great War (now known as World War I) erupted in 1914, dragging Europe from the pinnacle of civilization into an abyss of mindless killing, President Woodrow Wilson was resolute: America would not enter into this foreign war.
Americans themselves had no desire to be drawn into the war, although the country quickly divided into camps supporting the two sides in the battle. Those supporting England, France, Belgium, and Russia (the Allies) only slightly outnumbered the huge German-American population that put its moral weight behind Germany, Austro-Hungary, and a few other central European nations (the Central Powers).
The socialists, led by Eugene Victor Debs and Jane Addams (of Hull House fame), were deeply committed to peace. They felt it was an obscene inversion of the arc of history for workers of the world to fight along nationalistic lines, rather than to band together against the worldwide evil of capitalism. Many who were not socialists, but saw no good in the European war, joined their peace movement.
Although the population was divided and Wilson clung to neutrality, as the years passed that neutrality had a remarkably Anglophile feel to it. The moment the war started, the British had cut the transatlantic cable tying America to the continent. This meant that Americans got the British view of the war and not the German. Of course, considering the carnage the Germans inflicted on both civilians and ancient buildings in Belgium and France on their thwarted march to Paris when the war began, it’s fair to say that, from the start, transatlantic cable or not, Americans who were not of German or Austrian origin were going to be hostile to the Central Powers.
Something else that made neutrality more honored in the breach than in practice was the fact that American ships could reach Britain, but not the continent. This created an economic boom for the Americans selling weapons and food to England — and, of course, it was a lifeline for Britain, which could never have lasted as long as it did without American supplies.
As the war progressed, and the money the British owed American manufacturers increased, Americans increasingly had a vested financial interest in a European victory. There would have been a serious depression in America had Britain lost the war.
The Germans were understandably concerned about the vast influx of weapons and supplies heading from America to England. In 1915, a German submarine torpedoed the HMS Lusitania, killing over a thousand passengers, including 128 Americans. Americans were outraged that the Germans had attacked a passenger ship and were disinterested in the fact that the ship was almost certainly carrying weapons to the British. As far as they were concerned, it was bad enough that the German’s were attacking American merchant marines with their newfangled submarines, without having them attack civilian vessels. The Germans, worried that the ship’s sinking would bring America into the war, promised to stop attacking American ships.
By 1916, though, the Germans concluded that the Americans, because they were arming England, were a de facto combatant in WWI. The Germans therefore announced that they were reversing course on their submarine moratorium and, henceforth, that all American ships approaching Britain were fair game.
Worse, in 1917, to Americans’ horror, the British, with the panache of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, produced the infamous Zimmermann Telegram, an internal German communication. Through it, the Americans learned that the Germans were proposing a military alliance with Mexico if the Americans entered the war. Even Wilson could no longer turn a blind eye to these provocations. He therefore went to Congress in April 1917 to make the case for war. This speech was to set the tone for American foreign policy for almost 100 years.
What Wilson realized as he wrote his speech was that, despite German attacks on American ships, America did not actually have any good reason to enter the war. Germany was an ocean away and, provided that the U.S. stayed out of the war, keeping Mexico neutral, Germany did not threaten America’s security or sovereignty. Moreover, if American retreated to true neutrality — that is, if she stopped trading with Britain — Germany would instantly leave her alone.
The one thing that Wilson could not admit was that, thanks to his turning a blind eye for three years to America’s ongoing trade with Britain, the reality was that America had every reason to go into war: As noted above, the U.S. needed a British victory to recoup all the credit it extended to Britain. But again, there was no way that Wilson would ever say that he was sending American boys to a charnel house for crass commercial reasons.
Faced with an unspeakable reason for entering the war, Wilson instead came up with a high-flown moral doctrine justifying America’s entry into the war. And so the Wilson doctrine was born (emphasis mine):
We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretence about them, to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.
Interestingly, given Wilson’s equally high-flown, and entirely unsuccessful machinations, after the war, Wilson almost certainly believed in his own altruistic, morally pure foreign policy. Moreover, he gave every sign that he believed that he had an almost messianic duty to carry it out. The 20th century might have looked very different if the successful Allied powers hadn’t sized him as a naive American hick and proceeded to destroy what little was left of Germany’s economy, setting the stage for the horrors that would come twenty years later.
Wilson’s idea resonated deeply with an idealistic generation of Americans whose allegiance to the New Testament and ties to the original Puritans meant that they had long believed themselves to be residents of a blessed City on a Hill. Of course they would fight to free the world, spreading far and wide the blessings of their own freedom. It did not occur to them then, as it did not occur to Iraq supporters almost 90 years later, that America’s freedoms might in fact be uniquely . . . American.
These same idealistic Americans were unfazed that Wilson, a KKK-loving racist, had closed civil service jobs to African-Americans the moment he entered the White House, and then encouraged segregation in every area of Washington life — and in the military. Nor did they quibble when Wilson, in his pursuit of democracy abroad, embarked upon a fascist regime at home that silenced all dissent and used heavy-handed government propaganda, along with an army of experts, to control every aspect of American life. (As always, if you’re interested in how Wilson planted the seeds for much of today’s Progressivism, you can’t do better than to read Jonah Goldberg’s invaluable Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change.)
To show just how deeply the notion of altruistic war reached into American culture, Irving Berlin did his basic training at Camp Yaphank where he wrote a show for the soldiers to perform. Two of his songs are still known today: the plaintive Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning and the rousing God Bless America. But he also wrote a little, forgotten ditty called Kitchen Police, which directly echoed Wilson in the chorus:
Poor little me,
I’m a K.P.
I scrub the mess hall
Upon bended knee.
Against my wishes
I wash the dishes
To make this wide world safe for Democracy.
Even a peeled potato and a clean stack of dishes spoke to America’s beneficence.
Beginning in 1917, American foreign policy hewed tightly to the Wilson Doctrine. America would not fight for water rights, or to control people, or to gather slaves about her, or for empire, or for power, or for wealth: She would fight altruistically to free people. That’s what America did in WWI, in WWII, in Korea, in Vietnam, in Iraq (twice), and in Afghanistan. She fought on the principle that her blood and wealth, spilled on foreign shores, would free the world from tyrants, to the benefit of all, America included. In 2003, George Bush and the neocons were most certainly acolytes of the Wilson doctrine.
Barack Obama, peculiarly enough, also believed in the Wilson doctrine — or, rather, he believed in a bizarre inversion of the Wilson doctrine. Because Obama viewed America as a Typhoid Mary nation, one that destroyed everything it touched, his idea of making the world safe wasn’t necessarily to make it safe for democracy. It was, instead, to make the world safe from America.
To that end, Obama pulled America out of Iraq and Afghanistan, creating power vacuums that ISIS, the Taliban, and Iran happily filled. He put his weight behind America’s former enemies, certain that all problems lay with America, and that it would take just a little charm offensive to bring around the Mullahs in Iran, the Erdogan Islamists in Turkey, Putin and his Russian oligarchs, and a host of bad other actors around the world.
With Obama’s ascendancy came the birth of a subset of the Wilson doctrine: America would make this world safe by leading from behind. Her absence would allow native cultures to flourish in all their morally relativistic beauty.
If this rejiggered Wilson doctrine meant that democracy died in Iran, Libya turned into a terror haven, ISIS took over vast swaths of the Middle East, the Taliban returned to Afghanistan, the UN denied Israel’s ancient ties to the land, five-hundred-thousand people died in Syria, millions of people became refugees, and Europe came to the brink of culturally assisted suicide . . . who cared? Obama was making the world safe from . . . America and, in looking-glass version of the Wilsonian tradition, that was a good thing.
While Americans may have gotten sick of being the world’s peacekeepers, something that brought nothing but whining and condescension from most of those whose peace America kept (except for Israel, which was always grateful), they quickly discovered that the world became a very dangerous place indeed for Americans when the U.S. entirely abandoned that onerous duty. Somewhere, there needed to be a balance.
Trump’s foreign policy brings that balance. Trump does not think America has a duty to make the world safe for democracy. Trump also does not think that America is a toxic nation that needs to make the world safe from itself. Trump simply wants America and Americans to be both safe and prosperous. He’ll do whatever it takes, at home and abroad, to make those twin goals happen.
To this end, Trump has no interest in spilling American blood and spending American dollars to make Syria, North Korea, or Afghanistan safe for democracy. He simply wants the bad actors in those nations to know that, if they engage in acts that threaten America or her reliable allies, he will stomp them like bugs, quickly and efficiently. We’ve now seen that in both Syria (which also sent a message to North Korea, China, and Russia), and in Afghanistan, an efficient use of American military might that triggered this moving series of tweets.
It doesn’t matter to Trump whether America’s enemy is ISIS in Afghanistan or Iraq (and increasingly, in America); Assad and his chemical weapons in Syria; or Kim Jong-un and his nuclear cuddlies in North Korea. To Trump, all of them need to be taught quickly and firmly that, as long as they leave him and his friends alone, he’ll leave them alone; and if they forget that lesson . . . well, they’d better tuck their heads between their knees and kiss their sadistic, tyrannical asses good-bye.
When it comes to America’s traditional allies, Trump will work with them provided he feels they’re not taking advantage of America’s good will and that thee partnership operates, not just to their benefit, but to America’s. In that context, “to America’s benefit” doesn’t just good feelings that accompany the pure Wilsonian altruism of making the world safe for democracy or the Obama altruism of making the world safe from America. Instead, it means a tangible benefit to America in the form of good trading relations and fair financial dealing America partners with another nation against a common foe.
Although Trump has not articulated this doctrine, his actions to date are consistent: Leave America alone and she will leave you alone. Be a good friend to America and she will be a good friend to you . . . up to a point. She will not fight your wars for you unless it’s in her interest to do so.
As to that last statement, I do hope that Trump concludes — geopolitics being what they are — that it is in America’s interests to put her moral weight behind Israel. I do not believe Israel has ever asked or would ever ask that America send her troops to die on Israeli soil. What Israel does ask from her American friend is, when it comes to peace negotiations, that America demand as much from the Palestinians as she does from Israel. Israel also devoutly hopes that America will continue to accept Israeli money in exchange for American weapons, especially when the chips are really down.
With luck, at long last, there might be a new foreign policy that manages to protect America and her allies, while isolating toxic nations until they collapse under the weight of the evil that infects them.