Speak Decently, and Carry a Big Stick

The Self-Contradictoriness of Armed Wilsonianism in US Foreign Policy

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, had brought a profound impact on American foreign policy. His political legacy has shaped both the public opinion on humanitarianism and the national mission to make the world “safe for democracy”, which till today has been utilized to entitle and justify ceaseless military interventions in other countries.

American foreign policy has been summarized by Walter Russell Mead into four basic ways: Hamiltonians are characterized as “Wall street business policy”, integrating nation’s need into global economy to ensure the domestic stability and economic well-being. Jeffersonians hold the idea that safeguarding the homeland should always be superior to implementing democracy abroad. Jacksonians, whose ideology has been stamped with both nationalism and isolationism, believe that the economic benefits and physical security of American people is always the priority of American foreign policy. Finally, Wilsonians regard spreading democracy and humanitarianism throughout the world as the moral obligation and national interest of United States. These four schools, sometimes reflecting distinct political goals, also function complementarily to shape the American foreign policy, since the establishment of this nation. It seems unrealistic to claim that one of the four plays the dominant role of the U.S. foreign policy in world affairs over the last century and more; however, if we try to find the most unique features of American foreign policy, comparing with other nations in both contemporary world and human history, no one can deny that Wilsonianism has been one of most distinguished ideologies.

There have been many superpowers in history, from the ancient Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire, Spain, British Empires in the 19th century, to United States. However, there has never been a nation like United States, holding Wilsonianism as one of the fundamental national missions, to spread liberal democracy and human rights throughout the world, and even to interfere in the internal affairs of other states and to deploy military force for this glorify goal. Contrarily, it’s not difficult to find similar political ideologies in other nations’ foreign policies corresponding to Hamiltonianism, Jeffersonianism, and Jacksonianism. For example, China, seized Jeffersonian-like foreign policy, putting safeguarding the homeland as top priority during Anti-Japanese War; then experienced a long period of struggle of both domestic economy and social stability, in which Jacksonian thoughts, characterized with nationalism and isolationism, dominated their foreign policy before the Open-Door Policy and the economic reform. Nowadays, “One Belt and One Road Initiative” has reflected China’s ambition on combining national interests with global economy on favorable terms, which resembles Hamiltonian perspective. Another example would be the British Empire. The Brexit in 2016 has been a representative move of Jacksonians. Before Brexit, it’s easy to find traces of Jeffersonian style tactics in Britain foreign policy to ensure their own homeland safety, since the British Empire stepped off the stage of global superpower. During the period of over two centuries with global dominant power, the British Empire fostered liberalism and promoted market trading as Hamiltonians would suggest, but rarely intervened in foreign places even their colonies to set up liberal regimes or to force accepting certain “universal values”, no matter out of good intention or not.

Undoubtedly, Hamiltonianism, Jeffersonianism, and Jacksonianism are all indispensable components of American foreign policy, but they neither define nor sufficiently explain the unique role of the U.S. in world affairs. However, can Wilsonianism alone be the overall story of the rise of U.S.? I’d like to answer this question by revising the famous saying of Theodore Roosevelt “speak softly, and carry a big stick”, into “speak decently, and carry a big stick”. The underlying idea can also be enunciated as armed Wilsonianism.

Next, I will examine the origin of armed Wilsonianism in World War I, the epic success of this ideology during the Cold War, and the unceasing failure throughout wars in the 20th century in places like Iran, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Armed Wilsonian, as one of the cores of American foreign policy in the last century and more, has served its role and achieved significant triumph; however, the self-contradictoriness of this ideology itself, which I will clarify later, is destined to fail when being used as the panacea in American foreign policies.

Defending human rights and keeping the world order is not any kind of pioneering idea. We can easily find similar aspirations in earlier presidents before Woodrow Wilson. George Washington expressed his hope in this way: “observed good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all”. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that United States is a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. However, they were never a political ideology until Wilson made the decision to step in the World War I to fight for “the principles of a liberated mankind” (Wilson’s speech on March 5th, 1917). At that time, Wilsonianism seemed an absolutely glory notion to “make the world itself at last free” (Wilson’s speech on April 2, 1917). Moreover, the reluctance of Wilson to interfere in European affairs at the beginning of World War I, shadowed the fact that from the date of birth, Wilsonianism is accompanied with military action. After all, an idea is only powerful when it leads to action.

Later, during the World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt continued conveying Wilsonian message of human right and democracy to the world. The United States successfully became the “world’s best hope” in that chaos era. Yet, only during the Cold War, the idea of “armed Wilsonianism” achieved its epic success. When the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union became the seeming endless seesaw battle, political aspirations exposed the fundamental differences between these two countries. John F. Kennedy successfully delivered a vibrant picture of humanitarianism and democracy in America to the whole world, especially to the Soviet Union and its allies. The catastrophic fall of Soviet Union came along with the ultimate rise of the United States as the only superpower. The power of an ideology was astonishing. Just as John F. Kennedy said, “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death.” Although America had involved in several wars to fight for freedom and democracy, only after this epic success, America began to believe that they are entitled to bring order to the whole world, as the only superpower left. Armed Wilsonianism had served its role in American foreign affairs so well, that politicians began to practice it indiscriminately in the following years.

Lyndon Johnson’s insistency to bring democracy to Vietnam, George W. Bush’s expectation to stabilize Iraq, and Barack Obama’s prediction of a peaceful Afghanistan, all proved to be unrealistic and futile. Even if the outcome of those interventions can be justified by the unpredictable nature of wars themselves, the fact is undeniable that the American good intention of “bring the international order and defending human rights” failed to deliver as well. The drastic change of the effectiveness of this foreign policy is confusing. How could armed Wilsonianism work so well in the earlier years? But kept struggling when America has achieved its absolute superpower?

The answer lies in the self-contradictory nature of armed Wilsonianism itself. Just as I mentioned before, Wilsonianism as a political aspiration, is only powerful when accompanied with real action, which, in this case, is the military intervention. Otherwise, it’s just a wish floating on thin air. In the era of chaos and wars, everyone carries a big stick, then the one who speaks decently impresses the rest without any doubt. Armed Wilsonianism burgeoned during World War I and II, and blossomed during Cold War; however, when the United States got ready to enjoy the fruit in the following years, it unexpectedly found the fruit taste bitter. This ideology seems not as effective as before. Nowadays, America has the most powerful military with global reach, in other words, carrying the biggest stick in the world. When the United States tries to “speak decently, and carry a big stick” in foreign affairs, sometimes with the sincere intention to deliver their “universal values” with firm voices; however, the terrifying image of the big stick has over-occupied the mind of the states having been intervened by America, it become implausible for people to remember, or to believe the decent words coming along with the big stick. Even worse, the more decently they speak, the more suspicious their intention appears. For instance, there are lots of questions of George W. Bush’s motivations for US military involvement in the Middle East, even though Bush emphasized “War on Terror” and democratization of Iraq again and again. On one hand, the glorified American value is fading because of the big stick waving behind; on the other hand, military intervention is the most effective, sometimes even the only mean to convey the universal values of the United States. The insoluble dilemma reflects the self-contradictoriness of armed Wilsonianism itself. In the early development stage of armed Wilsonianism, the self-contradictoriness of this ideology appeared with a tempting illusion of self-complementariness, which combines realism and idealism together. Nonetheless, with the development and maturation of this ideology, the self-contradictoriness revealed, and became its own hinder, and brought continued disappointment in the following years.

Among all the contemplations on the failed nation building in the Middle East, Emma Sky held the belief that if all the “missed opportunities” in Iraq war were fully seized, the outcomes would be different. Certainly, the ending might be different, but probably never as good as those wars of freedom and human rights in the past, when America hasn’t become the only global superpower. For Iraq war, armed Wilsonianism innate with the self-contradictoriness is doomed to the failure: there is no way to convince Iraqi people American liberal democracy and humanitarian belief when bombing them at the same time; while there is no other way to deliver those messages, but intervening their country.

Lincoln believed that “when an end is lawful and obligatory, the indispensable means to it are also lawful and obligatory”. Unfortunately, in real life, it’s difficult to convince people that a guy showing up with a big stick in his hand is here to help you. Similarly, the “decent” Wilsonian ideology doesn’t always justify American military interventions.

Moreover, good intentions don’t always come with good results. The big stick in the hand of the United States, has become one of the destabilizing and threatening power to the world peace. The improper use of military power in Iraq has been the main reason for the rise of Islamic State, better known as ISIS. The US-led invasion of Iraq undoubtedly caused the upsurge of reactionary armed militia groups, and the hasty withdraw of military power during Obama’s administration gave ISIS the chance to develop and grow.

Actually, the self-contradictory nature of armed Wilsonianism is also reflected on American military. Rosa Brooks questioned the rationality of the humanitarian burdens on American military, in her book How everything became war and the military became everything. Currently the American military personnel operate in almost every country on earth, and are doing missions beyond their purview: “they build isolation wards in Ebola-ravaged Liberia, operate health clinics in rural Malaysian villages, launch agricultural reform programs and small business development projects in Africa, train Afghan judges and parliamentarians, develop television soap operas for Iraqi audiences, and conduct antipiracy patrols off the Somali coast” (page 13, Rosa Brooks, How everything became war and the military became everything). The underlying cause is the deep-rooting Wilsonianism in American military. Unlike other three major ideologies, which dominated the main political stream in turns during different periods, Wilsonianism has always been the supremacy in the values of American troops: they are fighting for the democratic values and intervening to build a rules-based world order. Wilsonianism justifies wars America has claimed to other states. Wilsonianism makes military interventions upright. And Wilsonianism keeps soldiers doing missions beyond their duty. There have been many outcries about the massive military expense, and one popular voice is that military should stop doing humanitarian jobs and hand them to other nongovernment organizations or local agencies. However, they didn’t realize that the current situation is caused by the entangled nature of army and Wilsonianism. The U.S. military has to “speak decently”, so that it can “carry the big stick” justifiably. Is there any way to emancipate the army from Wilsonianism? The answer is yes. If the United States restrained the military action in safeguarding at home, nationalism will be the alternative hub to unite the military, and release the burden of humanitarian missions abroad from the army.

There are doubts on the tactic that America focuses on its self-interest and resign from the role of “world policeman”. However, the notion that a global chaos might be caused by American isolationism is flawed. Equilibriums of power will show up to fill the power vacuum, and keep nations to interact with other peacefully, just like the case in Europe between the Napoleonic War and World War I.

Armed Wilsonianism has served its function and achieved great success in the past. However, the self-contradictory nature of this ideology has developed to a point that it is both ineffective and dilemmatic. The democratic goal of military intervention is challenged, while the military is overwhelmed with humanitarian missions. Ignoring its self-contradictory nature and historic restrains in this new era would only bring continued disappointment in American foreign policy. “Speak decently, and carry a big stick” won’t work anymore. It is time for the United States to rethink its foreign policy.

YQ Chen in Dec 2017

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