Making the World Safe for Democracy: Wilsonianism Revisited

Posted on March 18, 2012 by Daniel Bleiberg

In declaring war on Germany in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson defined the central goal of his vision for American foreign policy by asserting that “the world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.”[i]Wilson ingrained this philosophy, known as Liberal Internationalism, into the psyche of the American public by advocating for the promotion of democracy, economic openness, well-structured multilateral institutions, and American leadership. Although former U.S. presidents had voiced support for the extension of democratic government, it was Wilson who concretely laid out the framework for Liberal Institutionalism, and thus created a liberal tradition which would define American foreign policy in the twentieth century and onwards. With that very tradition in mind, Barack Obama became President in January of 2009 with a significantly diminished America at his hands, facing two seemingly endless wars and a relentless recession. President Obama’s rhetoric from his 2009-2011 speeches validates his commitment to the Wilsonian tradition: the hope that the United States could be restored through the pursuit of a global, just, and lasting peace. Obama thus faces the daunting task of rendering the Wilsonian tradition relevant and applicable to a world with diverse foreign policy challenges, ranging from the Afghanistan War to promoting human rights in autocratic regimes. With the advent of the Arab Spring, an opportunity has arisen for Wilsonianism to remain relevant and for President Obama to create his legacy based on the essential characteristics of Liberal Internationalism.

When constructing the Liberal Internationalist narrative, the four pillars of democratic promotion, economic openness, multilateral institutions, and American leadership all have an interdependent relationship, mutually reinforcing one another through their distinctive identities. The ultimate goal is to construct a league of democratic states with liberal economies, working constructively through multilateral institutions under the wings of U.S. leadership. For President Wilson, democracy promotion was undeniably the crux of the liberal tradition. Without democratic governments that are transparent, accountable, and dependent on the consent of the governed, the Liberal Internationalist hopes for peace fall apart completely. Democracies create a style of government that is non-violent towards their own domestic constituents, and this extends to non-violence in the international setting towards democratic nations. This vision is reinforced by the democratic peace theory, which holds that democratic nations do not engage in war with one another based on their transparent values, institutions, and an understanding of a common interest in avoiding aggression. In his “War Message,” Wilson stressed that “a steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants.”[ii]Through the guarantee of domestic stability, democratic governments could promote international concord and peace. Democratic systems of government were not only morally superior in Wilson’s eyes, but also necessary for stability. Under the rule of law, contending social forces could act to resolve disputes in a democratic fashion. Hence, the conduct of a state alone does not dictate whether or not a nation can be involved in the collective pursuit of peace, but rather the very nature of that government itself is the determining factor.

By declaring war on Germany in 1917, Wilson would unleash a series of events that molded the Liberal Internationalist framework and tested the vision of a just and lasting peace. Wilson argued that the German Empire was autocratic and thus inherently aggressive. The U.S. would enter the war based on the premise that it would fight for democracy, the sovereignty of small nations, and the construction of a universal order of free peoples to make the world peaceful[iii], rather than on Realist balance-of-power fears about Germany. A Liberal Internationalist would argue that the fundamental nature of a state’s institutions is the determining factor for the state’s actions, rather than balance-of-power. A peaceful state must be based on the theory that political power is exercised when derived from the people. Wilson reaffirmed this conviction in his 1917 speech to the U.S. Senate, arguing that “no peace can last, or ought to last, which does not recognize and accept the principle that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed.”[iv] Therefore, the sustaining pillar of Liberal Internationalism is the promotion of democracy, lying at the crux of the Wilsonian vision.

In stressing economic openness, Liberal Internationalism promotes deepening economic ties between countries in order to render them interdependent. This interdependency reinforces the notion of peace by creating a vibrant middle class that becomes the bearer of democracy. A thriving middle class promotes democracy through its interest in transparent and accountable governments. Economic exchanges are also tied to multilateralism, since the middle class prefers to adjudicate conflicts through rules of cooperation rather than warfare. As states become more interdependent, they build multilateral institutions to solidify cooperative gains and mitigate conflicts. Not only does economic openness support democracy, but it cannot survive without it. Without a democratic form of government, states will be inherently militaristic or imperialistic, and will choose to bypass multilateral organizations for aggressive unilateral actions. These governments may be prone to closing the global economic system, thus rendering mutually advantageous trade obsolete. President Wilson was very conscious of the threat of economic imperialism, arguing that open markets would promote free trade as a peace-making doctrine. In his Fourteen Points, Wilson called for the removal of economic barriers and the establishment of equality of trade conditions in Europe.[v] He believed that “democracy and capitalism are mutually reinforcing systems of collective action”[vi], and one could not exist without the other.

The third essential component of Liberal Internationalism is the belief in the efficacy of multilateral institutions in bringing about peace. A multilateral institution provides a forum where disputes are settled through diplomacy, collective security, or arbitration procedures. Only through a set of institutionalized obligations representing states where citizens have political clout can liberty be achieved. By including only free nations in a multilateral arrangement, Wilsonians hold that global bodies are accountable to their citizens by virtue of their democratic membership. Hence, a fully accountable and transparent multilateral institution cannot exist unless it is led by democratic states. This ideal of a liberal collective security system was embodied by the creation of the League of Nations, which President Wilson envisioned would be composed of democratic states. Collective security is a security arrangement whereby an attack against one member is perceived as an attack on every participant nation. Wilson argued that by participating in multilateral organizations, the United States’ self-interest and the general world interest would coalesce into one mission.[vii] A concert of free nations would maintain peace through, “…a league of nations to steady the counsels and maintain the peaceful understandings of the world, to make, not treaties alone, but the accepted principles of international law as well.”[viii] Without U.S. leadership in the League of Nations, such an order could very well fall apart. Ultimately, the League of Nations lacked both pillars of U.S. leadership and strictly democratic leadership, leading to its short-lived existence as a multilateral organization.

The final component of Liberal Internationalism is bold American leadership, where the United States presumes to be the dominant power player in the world. President Wilson envisioned U.S. leadership as disinterested in exploiting other states, and standing for no gain through the defeat of an enemy. Instead, U.S. leadership was a means to an end of a just and lasting peace. Wilson addressed the Senate in 1919, explaining that the world had, “universally recognized that America had entered the war to promote no private or peculiar interest of her own but only as the champion of rights which she was glad to share with free men and lovers of justice everywhere.”[ix] In that same speech, Wilson attempted to convey to American policymakers why a League of Nations would serve the national interest and how it could connect to multilateralism. Wilson’s intentions were to institutionalize the United States’ management role in global politics through a successful league of democracies. At the same time, classical Wilsonians appreciate that American leadership cannot stand alone and that it requires the promotion of democracy in order to achieve a policy that goes beyond national self-interest. Furthermore, American leadership must also strive to encourage economic liberalization and play a leading role in resolving conflicts through multilateral institutions.

Almost a century following the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, President Barack Obama has entered the fray promising to restore America through a vision that closely resembles the Wilsonian tradition. If his Nobel Peace Prize Speech sets the tone for the rest of his presidential pronouncements, then his promises to promote a just peace will ultimately be judged by the American reaction to the arrival of the Arab Spring in 2011. The non-violent nature of the Arab revolts in their nascence signaled a potential reemergence of liberal trends through the voices of Arab youth calling for democracy. These calls meant that the Wilsonian promise appeared to be bearing fruit where few had thought to see it appear so robustly.[x] In Oslo, Obama spoke about the synergetic relationship among the four tenets of Liberal Internationalism, evoking President Wilson and his legacy: the construction of a solid architecture to keep a global peace.[xi] By fully endorsing the arrival of the Arab Spring and promising a liberal peace in Afghanistan, Barack Obama firmly places himself into the camp of Liberal Internationalist presidents by embracing the four central pillars of the Wilsonian philosophy.

When advocating for the spread of democracy, Obama falls directly in line with the Wilsonian tradition in both rhetoric and tone. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, President Obama echoes Wilson’s War Message in almost verbatim terms, declaring that “Only a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.”[xii] Like Wilson, Barack Obama points to the nature of a certain government as being the leading indicator of whether or not a certain peace can be stable. When a government denies their people freedoms of expression, assembly, or worship, they will not be able to maintain peace. Ironically, Obama’s Nobel Speech and Wilson’s War Message mirror one another in rhetoric, despite the former speech being held in a context of celebrating peace while the latter signified a declaration of war against Germany.  Nonetheless, their messages coalesce due to the direct relationship in Liberal Internationalism between building a just peace and military intervention to secure that very world order.

When the Arab Spring broke out in full force in Egypt, the Obama administration waited cautiously before calling for the autocratic President Hosni Mubarak to step aside from power. Only after witnessing the massive public and non-violent demonstrations in Tahrir Square did Obama begin to understand the momentous historical opportunities of the Egyptian Revolution. He laid out concrete steps by pressuring the military to lead the transition towards democratic reforms through free elections, lifting the emergency law, and amending the constitution.[xiii] After heavy pressure from the American administration, the Egyptian military toppled Mubarak. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton coherently defined the U.S.’s approach and response to the Arab Spring in comments made at Qatar, promising to “highlight and hold accountable oppressive and corrupt government officials, and to find common ground that will give voice to those who are standing for democracy, freedom, and human rights, and against extremism, terrorism, and violence.”[xiv] The Obama administration has also embraced the Wilsonian push for self-determination, arguing that ultimately the Arab peoples of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya launched the revolutions themselves, rather than through outside interference, and hence must determine their own proper destines.[xv]

When approaching the Wilsonian commitment to economic openness, President Obama directly ties economic inequalities to political strife and war. Before he was elected, Obama argued that, “to empower forces of moderation, America must make every effort to export opportunity — access to education and health care, trade and investment.”[xvi]Keeping with the Wilsonian tradition, the President linked economic opportunity to global peace during his Nobel Prize speech, concluding that “a just peace includes not only civil and political rights – it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.”[xvii] With the advent of the Arab Spring, which many analysts describe as a reaction to decades of ubiquitous economic corruption in the Middle East, the Obama administration was presented with an opportunity to link American assistance through foreign economic aid to the development of a democratic tradition in the Arab world. Obama has often cited economic inequalities and systemic corruption as the catalysts for the Arab Spring, and to alleviate those systemic flaws, he has pledged that “American support for democracy will therefore be based on ensuring financial stability” to help those economies open up.[xviii] This policy outline stems from his pre-Presidency opinion piece in “Foreign Affairs”, where he made the case that American security interests rely on, “building capable, democratic states that can establish healthy and educated communities, develop markets, and generate wealth.” The Obama administration has thus extended the President’s original commitments to pushing for reforms to the Middle East, in the hope that young Arab voices will be empowered through American economic engagement.

Just as President Wilson appreciated the role of multinational institutions, so too does Barack Obama stress the need to act through a concert of states. Even before his Presidency, Obama spoke of NATO as a “partnership for peace”[xix] and continues to cite the organization when justifying U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and Libya. In order to justify the concept of a just war to a skeptical international audience, President Obama evoked the use of multilateralism and the indispensable peacekeeping nature of NATO in his Nobel Prize speech.[xx] With regards to Afghanistan, the President advocated in his 2009 speech that the struggle was a global effort, claiming that “…what’s at stake now is not just our own security – it is the very idea that free nations can come together on behalf of our common security. That was the founding cause of NATO six decades ago. That must be our common purpose today.”[xxi] Collective action would play a similar role in Libya, with Obama understanding that as Commander-in-Chief, the effort to topple Gaddafi would come through coordination with international allies backed by the United Nations Security Council. Thus, the message was conveyed through multilateral institutions rather than solely the United States itself, lending both efforts international legitimacy.

In continuing U.S. leadership in world affairs, President Obama remains committed to the special and unique role that the U.S. should play. Following a crippling economic crisis, two unpopular wars, and a diminished global stature for the U.S., Obama is in a uniquely challenging position (which Wilson was not,) having to rally the American people in a call to action to reassert the nation’s active role in leading the community of democracies. In “Renewing America,” Obama promises: “We can be this America again. This is our moment to renew the trust and faith of our people — and all people — in an America that battles immediate evils, promotes an ultimate good, and leads the world once more.”[xxii]To assuage global concerns of American expansionist efforts, Obama assured audiences that the U.S. was pursuing an “enlightened self-interest,”[xxiii] just as President Wilson promised that America was disinterested in dictating affairs to the peoples of Europe during World War I. Obama laid out the American message to the Middle East during his May 2011 Middle East Speech, arguing that “Our message is simple:  If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.”[xxiv] Essentially, the Obama administration has tied this central tenet of Liberal Internationalism to other components by pledging to provide global leadership through a common security framework[xxv] and to provide U.S. economic assistance for those who request it.

In conclusion, global circumstances such as the Arab Spring and the Afghanistan War have presented President Barack Obama with an opportunity to reintroduce the Liberal International agenda to the forefront of the American foreign policy debate, as demonstrated through his pronouncements in support of democracy promotion, economic openness, multilateral institutions, and a leading U.S. leadership role. All four pillars have played a crucial role in the administration’s foreign policy agenda, and will surely impact the legacy of President Obama. Although one may argue that Obama’s scorecard on Wilsonianism is mixed, based on his selectiveness in using the term ‘democracy promotion’ in policy areas such as Afghanistan, his rhetoric has portrayed a consistent message of Liberal Internationalism. When Obama speaks about U.S. national interests, he views them through the lens of the global interest in securing human dignity. When discussing the pursuit of democracy and political rights such as transparent government, Obama echoes Wilson in declaring, “Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”[xxvi] With that clarity and stark message in mind, President Obama is constructing his legacy as a champion of the Wilsonian tradition, in the hope that the United States will be restored through the pursuit of a global, just, and lasting peace.


[i] Woodrow Wilson, “Request for Declaration of War,” The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library (April 2, 1917).
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Woodrow Wilson, “Peace Without Victory,” The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library (January 22, 1917).
[v] Woodrow Wilson. “Fourteen Points.” Avalon Project (January 8, 1918): (October 2011).
[vi] Tony Smith. America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995), 85.
[vii] Woodrow Wilson, “Request for Declaration of War,” The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library (April 2, 1917).
[viii] Woodrow Wilson. “Address to the Senate,” Senate Archives (July 10, 1919).
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Tony Smith. America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2012), Epilogue.
[xi] Barack H. Obama “A Just and Lasting Peace,” Nobel Prize (December 10, 2009): (October 2011).
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Barack H. Obama, “Statement on Mubarak Stepping Down,” Council on Foreign Relations (February 11 2011): (October 2011).
[xiv] Hilary R. Clinton, “Forum for the Future: Partnership Dialogue Panel Session,” (January, 13 2011): (October 2011).
[xv] Barack H. Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa,” (May 19, 2011): (October 2011).
[xvi] Barack H. Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs Magazine (July/August 2007): obama/renewing-american-leadership (October 2011).
[xvii] Barack H. Obama “A Just and Lasting Peace,” Nobel Prize (December 10, 2009): (October 2011).
[xviii] Barack H. Obama “A Just and Lasting Peace,” Nobel Prize (December 10, 2009): (October 2011).
[xix] Barack H. Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs Magazine (July/August 2007): (October 2011).
[xx]Barack H. Obama “A Just and Lasting Peace,” Nobel Prize (December 10, 2009): (October 2011).
[xxi] Barack H. Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” White House (December 1, 2009): (October 2011).
[xxii] Barack H. Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs Magazine (July/August 2007): (October 2011).
[xxiii] Barack H. Obama “A Just and Lasting Peace,” Nobel Prize (December 10, 2009): (October 2011).
[xxiv] Barack H. Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa,” (May 19, 2011): (October 2011).
[xxv] Barack H. Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs Magazine (July/August 2007): (October 2011).
[xxvi] Barack H. Obama, “Remarks by the President on a New Beginning,” White House (June 4, 2009): (October 2011).

Obama, Barack H. “Remarks by the President on a New Beginning,” White House (June 4, 2009): (October 2011).

Obama, Barack H. “A Just and Lasting Peace,” Nobel Prize (December 10, 2009): (October 2011).

Obama, Barack H. “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” White House (December 1, 2009): (October 2011).

Obama, Barack H. “Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa,” (May 19, 2011): (October 2011).

Obama, Barack H. “Renewing American Leadership.” Foreign Affairs Magazine (July/August 2007): (October 2011).

Obama, Barack H. “Statement on Mubarak Stepping Down,” Council on Foreign Relations (February 11 2011): (October 2011).

Clinton, Hilary R. “Forum for the Future: Partnership Dialogue Panel Session,” (January, 13 2011): (October2011).

Smith, Tony. America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Smith, Tony. America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Wilson, Woodrow. “Address to the Senate,” Senate Archives (July 10, 1919).

Wilson, Woodrow. “Fourteen Points.” Avalon Project (January 8, 1918): (October 2011).

Wilson, Woodrow. “Peace Without Victory.” The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library (January 22, 917).

Wilson, Woodrow. “Request for Declaration of War.” The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library (April 2, 1917).

About Daniel Bleiberg

Daniel Bleiberg is a junior at Tufts University from Los Angeles, California. He is majoring in International Relations with a concentration in International Security, and minoring in History. He is studying abroad at Tufts-in-Paris in Spring 2012, and is fluent in both French and Hebrew. At Tufts University, Daniel was Vice President of the Sigma Iota Rho, Beta Chi Chapter and served as president of the organization Tufts Friends of Israel for two years. He was selected Tufts Student Leader of the Year at the 2011 Office for Campus Life Awards for his role in active citizenship on campus. Daniel is passionate about issues pertaining to Middle East peace, democracy promotion, and human rights. Last summer, he worked as a legal assistant at a worker's compensation firm in Los Angeles. Upon graduation, he hopes to pursue a formal law education and a career in diplomacy.