Reading Scott Berg’s recent biography of Woodrow Wilson to write a review of it for another magazine has brought to mind a couple of striking developments in the evolution of the U.S. presidency. Woodrow Wilson has been much maligned as an unrealistic idealist who was supposedly afflicted by naïveté in seeking a League of Nations and proposing open international negotiations, reductions of armaments, and the supremacy of impartially administered international law. Certainly, the shambles of hypocrisy and corruption of the United Nations incites some thoughts of this kind. But Wilson was undoubtedly correct that the American public would not sustain controversial foreign-policy initiatives, especially recourses to force, if they did not think they were morally compatible with the espoused ideals and ambitions of the country. And it is not reprehensible to require that going to war be morally justified. The dubious circumstances of the provocation of the Mexican War, which added a million square miles to the country — more than it started with or gained with the Louisiana Purchase — and led to the restoration of slavery in Texas, where it had been abolished by the Mexicans, would not be so easily sold to the country in the more searching and exigent media age we have known at least since World War II.
Prior to the 20th century, American foreign policy consisted of establishing the country, responding to British outrages on the high seas with the War of 1812, proclaiming the Monroe Doctrine of restricting foreign influence in the Americas (although for 40 years it was enforced by the British and not the Americans), and asserting hemispheric prerogatives against the Mexicans and the Spanish. Theodore Roosevelt expanded the Navy and sent it around the world (after painting it white), built the Panama Canal (after seizing and inventing the country of Panama), and spoke of “carrying a big stick.” But Theodore Roosevelt was largely a warmonger. He had wanted to go to war with Britain over the nonsensical dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela about the border between Venezuela and British Guyana in the mid 1890s. He thought a war would be good for Americans, to toughen them up; that it would be a salutary experience for American coastal cities to be bombarded by the Royal Navy, to shake Americans out of their softness and complacency; and that it would furnish an excuse for the seizure of Canada. This would be the perfect sequel to the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican War, and the acquisition of Alaska; and would be a development Canadians would welcome, because of the ambiguity of their condition as citizens of a country that was at that time not entirely autonomous of the British. (Roosevelt had never been in Canada, knew nothing about it, and didn’t realize that Canadians retained, in foreign-policy terms, a subordinate position to Britain only in order to ensure that they had a British military guarantee against American annexationist tendencies, of which TR was so illustrative.)
Wilson rendered a great service in establishing the requirement that has, to some appreciable extent, been followed or, at the least, has received some lip service since: that American foreign policy must not only serve the national interest but not be unconscionable by traditionally espoused American humanitarian standards, in concept or in execution. More important, he was the first person to inspire the masses of the world with the vision of enduring peace and with the elevation of international law to a serious level of international deference and enforcement. Of course, it didn’t work, Wilson was a tragedy, and his presidency ended in disaster, failure, and premature incapacitation; but his achievement was durable, even if it required the horrors of World War II and the atrocities of Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, and some other countries to sell aspects of the Wilsonian message to Americans and many other peoples.
The expulsions of the Iraqis from Kuwait and of al-Qaeda from Afghanistan were unexceptionable, but whether the other actions were strategically wise is not clear. The U.S. has practically negligible returns that are durably useful to it to show for the scores of thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars spent in the Vietnam, second Iraq, and Afghanistan wars. In plunging into and then abandoning nation-building in Iraq, waffling about the morally correct course in Syria, and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (and still piping up for its deposed leaders even after the Egyptian government has branded it, as it always has been, a terrorist organization), coherence has been lost so thoroughly that nostalgia is incited both for the Theodore Rooseveltian policy of muscularity in the national interest and the Wilsonian practice of imposing strict ethical criteria for recourse to military intervention but intervening with crisp efficiency when those criteria are met. (This was after his ludicrous fiasco in Mexico, when he sent a punitive mission to mill about among the bandit factions in that country’s civil war.)
The other point of contrast that emerges from comparisons with the presidency of a century ago is that Wilson came to office with an extensive and specific platform that included currency reform, tariff reduction, more comprehensive discouragement of monopoly practices, and modest reallocation of fiscal resources to alleviate the most depressed socioeconomic sections of the population. Even TR called Wilson “a less virile version of me.” (There are several definitions of virility, but the ardent Presbyterian Wilson was, in fact, an almost uncontrollable womanizer at times.) Wilson enacted his entire program, including setting up the Federal Reserve and passing the Clayton Antitrust Act. Not since Nixon has there been a president who seriously set out to pass laws to make conditions of American life better. Reagan was the most successful president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his program essentially consisted of a tax cut, tax reform, welfare decentralization, and a defense buildup. These policies led to a huge, non-inflationary boom in job creation, GDP growth, and productivity increases, and won the Cold War as well — but it wasn’t a comprehensive reform program, like Wilson’s, the Roosevelts’, LBJ’s, or, up to a point, Nixon’s.
This isn’t all bad, and the arguments for less government are strong. (The current administration staked all its bets on “affordable health care,” which has been a disaster.) No one since Nixon has really had a reform program. Practically all the members of Congress (of both parties and houses) present measures of economic benefit to their states or districts, and trade votes with other legislators engaged in the same endeavor. It is democracy of a sort, but it amplifies the role of money in politics and government and has nothing to do with presidential leadership. There is one other point: Woodrow Wilson was rivaled only by Jefferson (and conceivably John Quincy Adams) as the greatest intellect ever to occupy the White House. He wrote his own speeches and delivered them with passion and overpowering eloquence. He didn’t have speechwriters or teleprompters and he frequently profoundly stirred the nation. We haven’t heard much of that since Reagan either.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.