Book Review: The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century


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Review by Jerry Petr

 Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century” by G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Tony Smith“The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century”
Authors: G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Tony Smith
Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press

This slim volume (117 pages plus notes) is interesting on a couple of levels, and to at least two audiences. It is a collection of four essays by “big think” foreign policy experts, who wrestle over whether or not the Iraq War can be understood as an extension of Wilsonian foreign policy ideas and who proffer thoughts about Wilsonianism extended into the post-Iraq 21st century. Foreign policy specialists can salivate over the contest between the academic titans; the rest of us get a front-row seat at a sharp but civil and provocative exchange on foundational concepts underlying U.S. foreign policy.

The fundamental premise underlying all four essays is that Woodrow Wilson, and his internationalist view, have provided the touchstone of American foreign policy for the past century. As Ikenberry asserts in his introductory essay, “For better or worse, we are all Wilsonians now.”

But, of course, in the academic world such an assertion immediately opens the door to debate(s). What, exactly, does Wilsonianism consist of? What does it portend for our foreign policy future? And, as Ikenberry opens the book, “Was George Bush the heir of Woodrow Wilson?”

G. John Ikenberry, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, sets the framework for the discussion in his introductory essay, “Woodrow Wilson, the Bush Administration, and the Future of Liberal Internationalism.” Although a complex concept, the essence of Wilsonianism appears to rest on the idea that the best hope for a peaceful world order is a community of democratic states, engaged in open economic and social interaction, mediated by international law and international institutions, relying on a web of collective security, with the United States “at the vanguard of this movement.” As the “father of liberal internationalism,” did Wilson provide the ideological underpinning for the Bush drive toward “liberty for the Iraqis” and democratization of the Middle East? Henry Kissinger argues that such use of American power is only taking Wilsonianism “to its ultimate conclusion.” Or, is the unilateralist muscle behind U.S. policy in Iraq “a deep violation of the letter and spirit of the Wilsonian tradition?”

Tony Smith, professor of political science at Tufts University, while decrying the Bush Doctrine and its application in Iraq, argues that “the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 [was] a Wilsonian undertaking.” His essay, “Wilsonianism after Iraq: The End of Liberal Internationalism?,” offers a provocative argument that “neoliberal” thinking, arising in the post-Cold War world, “did the intellectual heavy lifting” that provided the “pillar of purpose” to the Bush Doctrine. This intellectual underpinning was the “assertion that with the expansion of ‘free market democracies,’ the United States possessed a blueprint capable of fostering global freedom, prosperity, and peace.” Smith concedes paternity of the “pillar of power” to the neoconservatives, but argues that the “multilaterist” element of Wilsonianism was secondary to the “democratization” element, and, properly understood, was mostly a “euphemism for Amerian primacy over a global coalition of liberal democratic people.”

Smith’s hard-edged critique of contemporary Wilsonianism is strongly resisted by Thomas J. Knock, associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. Professor Knock, in his essay, “Playing for a Hundred Years Hence: Woodrow Wilson’s Internationalism and His Would-Be Heirs,” seems offended that anyone would try to cloak George W. Bush and his Iraq adventure with the mantle of Wilsonian internationalism. Knock’s position is that the “democratization” of Iraq was no more than a “flip-flopped” rationalization after WMDs were not found, that essential Wilsonianism includes heavy emphasis on multilateralism, and that, for Wilson, “…unilateral military intervention … was quite possibly the least propitious way one country might attempt to influence another, let alone bring democracy to it.” Further, Knock argues that neoconservative support for “the muscular patriotism of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan” rather than “the utopian multilateralism of Woodrow Wilson” is a truer representation of the Bush foreign policy position.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s concluding essay, “Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century,” presents a rebuttal of Tony Smith’s attempt to place some of the blame for the Bush Doctrine on Wilson’s liberal internationalism, and considers the Wilsonian agenda for the foreseeable future. Slaughter takes umbrage at Tony Smith’s “neologism” of neoliberalism and his assertion that the only difference between liberal Wilsonians and George Bush is the “preference for multilateralism over unilateralism.” To Slaughter, “This claim twists Wilson and his legacy beyond recognition.”

Slaughter argues that, properly understood, Wilson elevated “self-determination” above “democracy,” advocated progress toward political and social change through “common counsel,” supported development of economic prosperity and social quality “from the ground up,” and comprehended the important role of time, “decades,” in ultimately making liberal democracy work. So, she writes, it is “…critical to grasp the difference between ‘democratization,’ or ‘spreading democracy,’ and supporting liberal democratic parties and institutions in countries determining their own political future.”

For a nonspecialist looking beyond the question of Bush as extension of Wilson, there is a further point of general foreign policy interest in this volume. Both Smith and Slaughter explicitly wrestle with the concern that “liberal internationalism” may slide into “liberal imperialism,” as the Wilsonian agenda for international betterment is bolstered by theoretical justifications for external interventions to achieve that agenda. Smith argues that Iraq may be one such example. Slaughter is more sanguine that appropriate institutions of collective action can make measured judgments about intervention, to be undertaken only “in extreme circumstances, [to ensure] enforcement of a government’s responsibility to protect its own citizens.”

Smith provokes us by suggesting that such a liberal internationalist vision of doing good in the world (embodied in a major 2006 foreign policy document, “The Princeton Project on National Security”—note that Iken­berry and Slaughter are both at Princeton) puts us on a slippery slope He charges that such an intellectual structure provides a “self-perpetuating and self-defeating framework for action more dangerous than any other initiative ever undertaken in the history of American foreign policy.” Smith sees the Princeton Project as congruent with the Bush Doctrine, in which the ends remain “Washington’s supremacy in world affairs based on military might and on a Wilsonian vision of how order may be structured.”

Slaughter believes that the international community can, via appropriate consultation and interaction, separate good interventions from bad, and that, to quote Ikenberry, “the democracy community must be seen as a source of enlightenment and restraint in an era when action and intervention are necessary for the security and management of liberal order.”

Most readers of Prairie Fire probably don’t care whether or not we label George W. Bush a “Wilsonian.” However, most do care about the foreign policy path that we are traveling. This book is a useful primer on that topic.


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