The Dawning of American Internationalism

With Donald Trump’s election seeming to signal a significant redefining of how the United States views its role in the world, it is worth looking to the roots of American internationalism. In doing so, we can better understand how the current Liberal Order began and was led by the United States for over 70 years.

In his article for Project Syndicate, the historian Tony Smith argues that many of the issues which faced Woodrow Wilson when attempting to establish a framework for intergovernmental peace following World War I are parallel to the ones facing Trump in the modern day. Then and now, a vocal portion of the American population is wary of supporting US intervention in foreign conflicts, immigration is complicating demographics and national interests, and there persists overriding sentiments that democracy should be spread throughout the world. Wilson’s response to these challenges was to navigate the United States into a position of international leadership, with the goal of ensuring foreign and domestic prosperity through improved international relations.

While he is often remembered for resisting American involvement in the conflicts of Europe (and for his unfortunate racism), Smith argues that it is more accurate to portray Woodrow Wilson as an internationalist who saw his country staying out of the global conflict of World War I for the purposes, he thought, of acting as a mediator. “America First” has become synonymous with his presidency (even though he may have never used the quote), but in Wilson’s time the slogan meant America should lead, rather than the nationalist and even isolationist overtones it acquired in the days of Charles Lindbergh, and now once again with Donald Trump. Even as German submarine warfare in the Atlantic forced Wilson to enter WWI as an Associated Power of the Allies, he still remained idealistically focused on what would be necessary at War’s end to ensure international peace. Although the League of Nations he built would ultimately fall short of its lofty goals of collective security, economic openness and democratic advancement, Wilson’s visionary experiment would lay the foundations for its’ successor the United Nations, which has been longer lasting and more effective.

Finally, Smith argues that Wilson’s legacy does not coincide with the modern foreign policy doctrines. Wilson would never have favoured spreading democracy by force, as the Bush administration did. Prudence, deliberation, and multilateralism were the cornerstones of Wilson’s approach. Donald Trump cannot truly claim lineage from Wilson either. For Wilson, isolation meant the US could mediate conflict. For Trump, it appears isolation allows the US to avoid conflict. Time will tell if Trump follows through with his promise of making America Great Again, and if this refocusing signals the end of liberal internationalism – the Liberal Order that American presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama have built and led.

Smith, Tony. ““America First’s” First Crack-Up.” Project Syndicate, 31 Mar. 2017. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.


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