Last weekend President Bush returned to West Point to address the Class of 2006 and defend his foreign policy doctrine on the same podium he previewed it in 2002. He claimed to be on the same path as President Truman who transformed American strategy after World War II and laid the foundation for victory in the Cold War. Buy it?
The problem is the President had the wrong analogy. His foreign policy course is actually following the steps of Woodrow Wilson’s failed internationalism after World War I. Ironically, that same analogy has troubling implications for Bush critics who want a revival of liberal internationalism. Indeed it suggests the Bush ideas may even get a second shot.
The Wilson and Bush records are akin in four ways (and let’s leave aside here the obvious point on idealism/democratization).
First, both presidents sought to transform U.S. strategy, albeit in different directions: Wilson by pulling the United States into the institutions of world politics, Bush by taking the country out.
Second, both won the war but lost the battle of ideas. Curiously they could not make their preferred strategies stick even as military victors.
Third, they both sealed their own fate by raising expectations beyond what could be delivered. In entering World War I, Wilson promised to make the world safe for democracy, do reforms at home, and end “Old Europe’s” secret diplomacy and imperialism. But after the war, there was no spread of democracy, reforms at home were stifled by security concerns, and the Europeans did not change their ways.
Bush promised that preventive war, regime change, and unilateral action would stop proliferation, spread democracy, and lead to a new era of great power cooperation. Yet, Saddam didn’t have nukes, but now North Korea and Iran do. Democracy’s advances have been tepid with some of the main cases producing reactions that have hurt U.S. interests – from Baghdad to Palestine to Ukraine. And relations with Europe, China, and Russia have soured since 2002.
Fourth, the shortfall between rhetoric and results in each case led to popular disillusionment, a rejection of change, and a return to prior strategy. Wilson’s successors retreated to isolationism. Bush himself has made the pilgrimage back to multilateralism, containment, and deterrence. Iran and North Korea will be handled as was the Soviet Union. Forget the Iraq deviation.
End of story? Perhaps not.
Remember that Wilsonian thinking disappeared for twenty years but then returned in a lead role in the script FDR wrote for the country in World War II — one that Truman largely implemented. This occurred for a number of reasons (I’ve written a book on the subject). But here let us focus on the fate of the isolationism that thwarted Wilson after Versailles — one that sounds eerily familiar to the difficulties waiting a revival of internationalism today.
The main problem with America’s reflexive return to the no-entanglement tradition after Wilson was that such a stance was simply too brittle for the conditions faced. It did not fit either the changed international or domestic circumstances.
Internationally, the United States was such a powerful actor and Europe in such disarray that U.S. detachment was a recipe for disaster — as Americans discovered in the Great Depression and rise of Hitler. Likewise, the domestic support for isolationism was being hollowed out by the rise of new U.S. financial and economic interests abroad as well as intellectual movements such as geopolitics and international legal thinking.
Today the internationalism Bush’s opponents want to revive looks similarly brittle in international and domestic terms. Forget the new demands of the war on terrorism. Many of the institutions at the heart of the internationalist project — the UN, the NPT, the IMF, the ICC — are not working as envisioned. Even if some Democrat or soft Republican wants to revive them or build new ones, he faces an uphill struggle because of low American credibility abroad — thanks in large part to the Bush Doctrine. And due to financial problems at home, the United States has less booty to grease the wheels of major international deals with side payments. Finally, let’s not forget the domestic realignment towards ‘red states’ that have a taste for muscular unilateralism.
So, for we critics of Bush who have been pining for the ascendance of a more expansive internationalism, be careful, we may get what we ask for — at least for awhile. But delivering on expectations is the key to ideas that work and given the above there is hard work ahead.
And for you loyal Bush Doctriners, don’t despair; your day in the sun may yet come again, especially if the internationalists tie themselves to an inflexible mast suited to the winds of a different era.
Jeff Legro is author of Rethinking the World: Great Power Strategies and International Order and a professor at the University of Virginia.