2013 will mark the 100th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson’s first term as president of the United States, and 2014 will observe the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. As we near these occasions, authors and commentators have been trying to answer many questions concerning Wilson’s presidency and World War I itself.
The chief theme that animates these discussions is the perennial tension between America’s desire for isolationism, on the one hand, and its commitments to internationalism, on the other. Indeed, the very concept of American internationalism, as Henry Kissinger makes clear in his monumental book “Diplomacy,” originates with Wilson’s presidency, especially in his April 1917 War Message to Congress to “make the world safe for democracy.”
However, many politicians and pundits today, especially Republicans, associate the Wilsonian idealist point of view as one promoting freedom, rather than democracy. This is a troubling tendency in our national life.
Wilson said that we must make the world safe for democracy, not freedom. Admittedly the very next sentence in his War Message was about liberty: “Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.” Liberty is, of course, a synonym for freedom. But the force of Wilson’s entire War Message against Germany and its submarine warfare revolved not around freedom but around the concept of democratic self-governance and the will of the people.
Wilson, though a fierce advocate of capitalism with no patience for socialism and communism, dedicated considerable energy to restricting the growth of free enterprise when it exploited workers and created unfair obstacles for small businesses. A “progressive” domestic leader and a trustbuster, he led the efforts to pass the Workingmen’s Compensation Act, and to create the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Reserve Board, and a national income tax — all in order to restrain laissez-faire capitalism.
In his War Message, Wilson was addressing political liberty — not economic liberty. Since then, Wilsonian idealism has often been used by conservatives to advance the causes of a broadly laissez-faire brand of capitalism in the name of making the world safe for democracy.
President Ronald Reagan, for example, had a tendency to cast the fight against the Soviet Union in the Cold War as one about freedom versus evil. In his famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate, he said: “After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.”
Likewise, President George W. Bush framed the war on terror as one that rallied around the value of freedom. He frequently said, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”
When Wilson said that we must make the world safe for democracy, he was not saying that we must make the world safe for the kind of democracy America had in, say, 1883, before the progressive reforms of his and Theodore Roosevelt’s administrations, and the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890 or the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887.
Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, there is no denying that we live in a broadly mixed-economy system, one that is extremely different from the kind of laissez-faire capitalist society we had over 100 years ago. Therefore, whenever we do espouse a broadly Wilsonian view, we should be careful that we not say that we are making the world safe for freedom.
It must be confusing for the American people to hear from presidents and members of Congress that we must protect freedom around the world when they may be struggling with economic institutions here at home that — as they see it — favor economic freedom over other democratic values, such as economic equality, economic justice and equality of opportunity.
Distorting our identity abroad distorts our domestic choices as well.
We didn’t win World War II or the Cold War with a laissez-faire capitalist economy, and we didn’t enter into World War I with one either — thanks to both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
Making the world safe for democracy — a mission that has many realist critics — is nonetheless a coherent approach to America’s foreign policy. Yet it should not be confused with making the world safe for freedom.
If we are not comfortable taking a strong Wilsonian stand on a particular foreign policy issue — whether it concerns Syria, Iran or North Korea — it is still important to understand what Wilsonian idealism is about and how some have manipulated it.
Members of Congress could take the lead on talking less about freedom and more about democracy.
David M. Anderson, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Advanced Governmental Studies in Washington, D.C.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly listed the Food and Drug Act as one of the measures Wilson worked to pass.