Woodrow Wilson's curse

Posted: Jun 21, 2006 9:05 AM
We’re all Wilsonians now. President Bush is doing exactly what his critics have always said he should do: He’s playing nice with the international community on North Korea, Iran and, whenever possible, Iraq. He’s not getting much credit from the Bush-is-always-wrong crowd. But then again, they don’t call it the Bush-is-always-wrong crowd for nothing. Still, Bush is embracing the international system, which liberals consider to be Woodrow Wilson’s gift to mankind. Wilson was the guiding spirit of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations (though, according to liberal mythology, America itself was denied entry into the promised land by those evil isolationists). To liberals, Wilsonian internationalism means playing nice with others.

Meanwhile, some of Bush’s strongest supporters are starting to grumble that the president has gone wobbly by giving up on a different Wilsonian vision. One branch of neoconservatives defines Wilsonianism not as getting chummy with cookie-pushers from state departments around the globe, but as the heroic push toward the democratization of the world. The Bush Doctrine, until recently, was hailed or derided as the greatest resurgence of Wilsonianism since Wilson himself. These neoconservatives are understandably vexed by Bush’s sudden embrace of diplomatic nuance.

Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute and editor of Middle East Quarterly recently denounced this “Clintonian” turn in Bush’s foreign policy. By Clintonian he means caving into the insatiable lust for the endless argy-bargy that sustains the international community.

The central tenet of those who refer to the international community as if it were some holy communion of angels rather than a yammering maw of bureaucrats is that it is always better to do wrong in a big group than to do right alone. Sen. John Kerry, a high priest in the Church of Internationalism, always grounded his most passionate criticism of Bush in the fact that the president failed to form a “grand coalition” on Iraq like Bush’s father had. The upshot seemed to be that invading Iraq would have been a good idea if only Chad and Uruguay were on board.

Actually, the truth was otherwise. Bush did, in fact, build a large “coalition of the willing” (a terrible term since a coalition of the unwilling is a bit of an oxymoron, like a “team of non-team members”). Bush’s critics guffawed at our puny 48-member alliance, noting that there were few heavyweights among them. The prevailing attitude among Bush’s critics seemed to be, “Azerbaijan? Portugal? Romania?” These aren’t real countries! Germany, Russia, France — now those are real countries!

Well, we’re playing nicely with those guys now, and few in the Bush-is-always-wrong school are impressed. But their partisan and hypocritical criticism had merit nonetheless. It’s simply not true that all countries are created equal.

Of the many bad habits Woodrow Wilson bequeathed to America, one of the worst was his penchant for talking about countries as if they were people. He used the rhetoric of “self-determination” as if he were talking about individual humans looking for justice, and he psychologized their actions with almost Freudian aplomb. This attitude stemmed in part from his faith that he and the people were one, so why not talk about other countries as if they were people too?

Once you think of nations as people, the cult of unity, which assumes that togetherness for its own sake is a virtue, kicks in. Our discussions of foreign policy have been corrupted by this sloppiness. One improbable example was the deeply flawed Steven Spielberg movie “Munich,” which took it as a given that nations are prone to the same psychological maladies as individuals. A more familiar instance of this thinking is the idiocy that confuses votes by the mob of kleptocracies and tyrannies in the United Nations General Assembly as some sort of expression of democratic will. A conclave of dictators doesn’t become democratic merely by voting on where to order lunch. Also, by seeing nations as people with different lifestyles, we confuse nationalistic dictatorships with democracies. When a cabal of murderous thugs like the Baathists take over a country, it is not self-determination no matter what the Michael Moore crowd says.

Egalitarianism has its place when talking about people, but it’s misplaced in foreign policy. For example, did you know that the New York metropolitan area has a bigger gross domestic product than all but eight nations in the world? According to data compiled by economist Kevin Hassett, Belgium’s economy is smaller than Chicago’s, and the Netherlands’ — the Vatican of internationalism — is smaller than that of Los Angeles.

I’m not suggesting that economic might makes right. Nor am I arguing, as realists do, that international affairs is purely a game of power. What I am saying is that we are very confused about what confers legitimacy in foreign affairs, and that this confusion stems from our annoying habit of imposing our ideas about people on things that aren’t people. And, I’m saying it’s largely Wilson’s fault.