In This Review
America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century

America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century

By Tony Smith

Princeton University Press, 1994, 442 pp.

This work, formidable in scope and scholarship, is a rousing defense of liberal Wilsonian internationalism. Smith, a professor at Tufts, gives Woodrow Wilson's utterances a canonical character, against which he measures the words and deeds of nearly all subsequent presidents. The importance of these ideas in providing the lens through which American self-interest was understood and pursued for much of this century -- often making interests and ideals nearly identical twins -- is lucidly presented.

Smith argues that implanting democracy requires a thorough reform and uprooting of not only the political system but also its social and economic underpinnings. Where this was done, as in Germany and Japan after World War II, democratic institutions took hold; where it was not done, which was just about everywhere else it was attempted, democracy for a long time lost its way. (The argument is convincing; does it not, however, suggest that the current hope of extending democracy through peaceful coercion -- at a moment when the "third wave" of democratization has clearly crested -- will be continually frustrated?) This historical account is accompanied by a sophisticated analysis of the perspectives on democratization of Marxists, comparativists, and realists, who hold respectively, says the author, that the United States will not, cannot, and should not promote democracy abroad. It is normally a sign of a good book when the author considers all extant interpretations of his subject to be fundamentally mistaken.

Smith is least successful in charting the span of presidents since Carter. His big tent of liberal Wilsonian internationalists includes not only Carter but also Reagan, Bush, and Clinton -- an interpretation of Wilsonianism, in other words, compatible with a wide range of policies. Yet it matters greatly whether democracy is promoted through example or resort to progressively more coercive instruments, up to and including war. Smith cites Wilson, Carter, and Reagan to the effect that America's example is to be the real agent of change in the world, making exemplars and crusaders all part of the Wilsonian camp. Reagan's arming of the contras and constructive engagement with South Africa is deemed "essentially Wilsonian," but so too, it would appear, was the opposition to those policies. It is no wonder that we are all "selective Wilsonian internationalists"; we should all want to join a church where such sinning is allowed.