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Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic…

Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition: The Treaty Fight in…

by Lloyd E. Ambrosius

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Woodrow Wilson's contributions to the creation of the League of Nations as well as his failures in the Senate battles over the Versailles treaty are stressed in this account of his leadership in international affairs.

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This study, published in 1987, has become one of the foundational texts for understanding Wilsonian internationalism and its legacy in American foreign policy. Ambrosius provides a careful narrative analysis of President Wilson's 1919 peacemaking efforts and his subsequent, unsuccessful attempt to bring the United States into the League of Nations after World War I.

Wilson has often been criticized, as he was by Henry Cabot Lodge and other Republican opponents at the time, for sacrificing American independence in favor of a nebulous system of collective security. But Ambrosius argues that Wilson in fact was seeking to fashion a League that would give the United States control over international relations. With a firm belief in universalism (the primacy of American ideals) and unilateralism (the primacy of American interests), Wilson saw in the League a means for the United States to take its rightful place of power in the world community without becoming entangled in the wars and conflicts of the Old World. His vision, however, clashed not only with that of domestic opponents (aggravated by his own rigid refusal to compromise over the terms of the League Covenant) but also, in Ambrosius's view, with the realities of the twentieth century world.

In contrast to the American universalism and unilateralism Wilson espoused, international relations were (and still are) characterized by pluralism and interdependence, where policies are shaped by the competing interests and relative power of many states. In retrospect, it seems unlikely that American participation in the League of Nations, had it materialized, would have played out the way Wilson thought it would. In his final chapter, Ambrosius briefly analyzes how the Wilsonian legacy influenced American policymakers through the rest of the twentieth century, and he doesn't paint a pretty picture.

Here's how he sums it up: "American policymakers continued to use Wilsonian categories in thinking about international affairs. Their idealism, however, often degenerated into cynicism, when hope succumbed to despair as a consequence of frustration in dealing with the modern world. Universalism and unilateralism still characterized their style in foreign affairs, which combined ideals with practicality. Just as President Wilson had failed to overcome the limitations of the American diplomatic tradition, so did subsequent foreign-policy leaders fail to surmount his legacy. Because the United States could neither ignore nor control the modern world, both traditional isolationism and Wilsonian internationalism provided unrealistic guidance for this nation. Throughout the twentieth century, instead of defining a realistic foreign policy, Americans sought to elude the fundamental dilemma arising from the combination of global interdepence and pluralism." (p. 298)

Note that this was written well before the foreign policy of the Bush Administration pushed the unilateral extension of American power and the promotion of American democracy overseas to new heights, moves that critics and supporters alike cited as neo-Wilsonian. ( )
  walbat | Jul 1, 2010 |
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