Last December, during a debate among the Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency, Senator Ted Cruz attacked the idea that the United States should pursue regime change in Syria. If Washington tries to topple Bashar al-Assad, Cruz warned, the jihadists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) “will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests.” Cruz suggested a different plan: “Instead of being a Woodrow Wilson democracy promoter, we ought to hunt down our enemies and kill ISIS rather than creating opportunities for ISIS to take control of new countries.”
Americans are often faulted for their indifference to (or ignorance of) history. Yet a disparaging reference to Wilson, who served as U.S. president a century ago, can still score points during a political campaign.
Indeed, Wilson’s ideas are particularly relevant and contentious today. In the years before Wilson came to power, many American elites subscribed to the views of the influential naval theorist and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, who argued that the United States should focus narrowly on keeping its borders safe, its commercial interests unchallenged, and its navy dominant while avoiding ambitious overseas interventions. Wilson ultimately came to champion a stark alternative to that view. After the catastrophe of World War I, he pronounced interest-based approaches such as Mahan’s to be morally bankrupt and instead sought to remake the world in the democratic, capitalist image of the United States. Wilson’s foreign policy ended in disappointment with the failure of his brainchild, the League of Nations. Yet as the post-9/11 era has demonstrated—and as Cruz’s dismissal highlighted—Wilsonianism is still very much alive.
The legacy of such ideas is the subject of Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy, a fine new history of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy from the late nineteenth century to the present by the British diplomatic historian David Milne. “U.S. foreign policy is often best understood as intellectual history,”
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