Woodrow Wilson and his Contested Internationalism
Few presidents have had to face such a monumental and formative event during their term such as Woodrow Wilson had to with World War I. In the decades before Wilson’s election, the United States faced unprecedented internal growth, largely due to advancements in technology and infrastructure: “the U.S population tripled. The value of manufacturing became six times larger. Cities grew up and out. While the election of 1912 mainly concerned itself with issues of how the government would handle the nation’s enlargement, Wilson’s two terms would foresee a different type of growth, one of an international and diplomatic nature. It was with World War I that the United States pushed away from the isolationist ideologies proclaimed in Geroge Washington’s farewell address and became a leading figure among the world. Wilson, the former governor of New Jersey and president of Princeton University, was at the helm of these novel diplomatic decisions that would forever change the course of the country’s relationship with foreign nations. The 28th President, such as the nation itself, changed his viewpoints on isolationism and the the United State’s place in the war and faced the momentous task of determining how the world will function in peace after a conflict of this magnitude. Wilson’s internationalism and view of a world order was an idealistic one, and faced contention with reality.
Prior to being elected, Wilson was not seen as a figure who would be heavily consumed with international affairs. As an academic, his main area of interest and expertise was not on diplomacy and foreign relations. During his campaign, Wilson primarily focused on the economy, as that was the pressing issue of the period, championing progressive views that retained individual rights through a smaller central government and the regulation of large corporations. When diplomacy was ever mentioned in the campaign, it consisted of Wilson “calling for a foreign policy that put human rights above property rights” which functions as an informative ideological predecessor for bigger things to come. Wilson was immediately thrown into a foreign conflict, as his election occurred during the third year of the Mexican Revolution. Wilson’s diplomacy with Mexico contains shreds of what he experienced with World War I, championing the idea of “self-determination and democracy, yet he later discovered that sometimes military intervention was a necessary force for order. Wilson found himself as a leading figure in protecting Mexico’s social order, and this would arise later in a more sizeable and consequential conflict: The Great War.
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Although the initial intentions were to remain neutral and continue the United State’s history of being relatively isolationist in regards to European affairs, the complexity of the conflict made it apparent that this approach was no longer possible. Isolationism was initially regarded with pride, as Wilson even used the slogan “He Kept Us Out Of War in his 1916 reelection campaign. When the battle broke out in 1914, Wilson was consumed with thoughts of how to end this conflict by means that did not involve a militarized United States. To Wilson, massive militarization was quite unfavorable in any sense, as it strengthened the idea that peace could only be achieved through war. As World War I progressed and influenced the U.S. economy, Wilson acknowledged that complete isolationism could not continue, but then expressed a desire to function as a mediator for the aims of peace. Wilson hoped for peace, yet as Germany posed a greater and greater threat to the United State’s democracy, more measures were needed to take place. Germany’s animosity became more apparent, as their submarines killed several Americans in the Atlantic. Wilson was a man who strived for amicability and respect between foreign nations, yet the increasing fear of Germany threatening the world order and the freedom of the United States led to Congress declaring war in 1917. In his Flag Day Adress, Wilson expressed his discontent: “Much as we had desired peace, it was denied us, and not of our own choice.
As shown in his diplomacy in regards to the Mexican Revolution, Wilson was a strong believer in democracy and citizen’s freedom to chose their own government, and he felt that Germany threatened these ideals. As much as Wilson was hesitant to expand the military, it was justified due to the fact that this was a war of protection, and specifically the protection against autocracy. Wilson also considered the possible outcomes of the war and understood that a military victory was not all that was needed to establish peace, as a war-torn Germany could easily build itself up again over time. For a world order to truly be attained, there needed to be shared values and systems, or else a battle such as this would occur again and again. This led to the creation of the Fourteen Points, which called “for Germany to evacuate all of the territory its armies occupied; the adjustment of specific territorial issues in Europe, such as Alsace-Lorraine and Poland; new precepts to guide the conduct of world politics and economics; and, finally, for nations to form a collective security organization. The terms also championed equality among nations and even encouraged Germany to be apart of the post-war world order so long as they democratize their government. The Fourteen Points was a shining example of American idealism and using the foundations of the nation as a model for the rest of the world to follow: “It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression.
World War I came to a close near the end of 1918, which then began the quest to refigure the post-war world and establish ways to avoid a similar occurrence in the future. Although Wilson had previously expressed that he did not wish to punish Germany too severely, fear of a resurgence of their power led to several provisions established at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 that hampered the nation, including the reduction of military power and financial retributions. In Wilson’s view, these provisions were essential to the protection of the world, halting Germany from resurging as an imperialist power. At this conference, Wilson put forward what he felt would be esssential to his vision of international harmony: the League of Nations. Wilson always maintained his idealistic worldview in which nations treated each other with respect rather than suspicion, and he felt that the League would change the nature of international politics in a way that decreased the need for military conflicts. Although Wilson’s post-war vision was one that encouraged peace, it also was a shining example of American exceptionalism in which Germany was expected to accept the United State’s worldview as a universal one. The League of Nations ended up being a failed endeavor, as the United States Congress did not have the same worldview as Wilson did and refused to join.
Wilson’s experiences during World War I can be summarized as a battle between ideology and actuality, as his ideal visions for a peaceful and democratic world continued to be hampered by this crisis of epic and contemporary proportions. Wilson’s hope to remain isolationist was contested by Germany’s threat to national sovereignty. His hopes of avoiding the militarization of the United States failed, as Worl War I set a precedent of the necessity to have a strong military in order to protect the country and its democracy from foreign powers. And the desire to create an international comity in order to avoid future international warfare was also a great defeat for Wilson, as the League rendered quite useless without the participation of the United States, and another international war was just around the corner. A great motivator in some of these discrepancies was fear, as Wilson needed to protect the United States and its future as a free, democratic country: “…behind the new diplomacy was still an old diplomacy, in that the determination to remain dominant within a traditional sphere of influence was as strong as ever. Wilson’s international policy was one of exceptional ideas and peaceful intentions, yet they did not translate into reality. This period marked a massive change in the way the United States interacted with the world, as the country would continue to function as a international powerhouse, attempting to spread American ideologies of freedom and democracy while also protecting their own self-interests. Wilson was also the first president that would be seen as an international figure of power and a leader of the world order. As the nation broke free from its isolationist past and became more transparent to the world, so did its leader, leading to an enlargement in the role of the American president in a century that would see the Executive Branch growing to unprecedented proportions.