Why Wilson Matters: The Origin of American Liberal Internationalism and Its Crisis Today

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Why Wilson Matters: The Origin of American Liberal Internationalism and Its Crisis Today
By Tony Smith
Princeton University Press, 2017
352 pp.
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Woodrow Wilson casts a long shadow over the last century of U.S. foreign policy. His call to make the world “safe for democracy” has inspired generations of American presidents and triggered debates about the precise nature of Wilsonian liberal internationalism and how it relates to American hegemony and U.S. military intervention. Before he became president, Wilson was a prolific writer and a leading American scholar of democratic government, and Smith’s major contribution is his reconstruction of Wilson’s thinking from his books, papers, speeches, and letters. What emerges is a portrait not of a crusader or a utopian but of a realistic liberal who understood the deep and slow-forming foundations of modern democratic rule. The book traces internationalism back to a “preclassical” era of the nineteenth century, to its Cold War “hegemonic” phase, and to what Smith sees as its “imperialist” phase, which began in the 1990s and reached its apotheosis with the Iraq war and President George W. Bush’s pledge to promote democracy “in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Smith’s message is that Wilson’s ideas have been repeatedly misinterpreted and misused. By reminding readers of what Wilson really said, Smith hopes to inform a more restrained and modest U.S. foreign policy.