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"Neo-Wilsonianism" and Neo-Nonsense

July 22, 2004

David Hendrickson takes issue with “neo-Wilsonian” visions of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy. Wilson would have objected to promoting democracy by force, Hendrickson argues, on the grounds that it violates the principle of self-determination.

It is a wholesome trend that The New Republic is reprising editorials from its early days. The latest entry, containing Walter Lippmann's case for Woodrow Wilson's re-election in 1916, shows why "neo-Wilsonian" is a most inappropriate name for the neoconservative doctrine that we are justified in imposing democracy through force. (TNR Online, 7.17.04) The near universal consensus among today's commentariat is flat wrong regarding Wilson's supposed embrace and legitimation of that doctrine. Wilson, as the Lippmann essay illustrates, took the opposite view, and had reasons that bear closely on the illegitimacy and imprudence of the war against Iraq.

Lippmann held Wilson far-seeing about Mexico, despite various inconstancies, because Wilson "understood that the problem of order in Mexico was deeper than the question of armed protection of American property and lives, that permanent stability and progress could never be attained by intervention, and that Mexico would never be a good neighbor until the Mexicans had achieved a measure of self-government. Conquest would merely mean decades of insurrection against the American conqueror, and a perversion not only of Mexico's life but our own. There was no peace to be had by intervention or by the establishment of Huerta."

Wilson had departed from the old recognition policy of the American government in his refusal to recognize Huerta, who had come to power in a 1913 coup sponsored by the resident American ambassador, whom President Wilson repudiated. Though Wilson certainly meddled in Mexican affairs, he also understood that there were strict limits to U.S. intervention. He wanted Mexico to have self-government but also believed that the form of self-government it achieved would have to be an indigenous growth, not something imposed by outside forces. Certainly he had no idea of imposing democracy through force or liberating Mexico from its armed marauders; on the contrary, his philosophy of foreign affairs stood in direct opposition to any such scheme.

Lippmann's characterization of Wilson's outlook shows also that Lawrence Kaplan is wrong in attributing opposition to such misguided ventures as proceeding necessarily from "realism"-that is, from the exclusive appeal to the national interest ("Springtime for Realism," 6.21.04) There are, to be sure, excellent reasons for realists to oppose the doctrine of democratic liberation, but the doctrine is obnoxious in equal measure because it violates a central moral and legal principle regarding the self-determination of peoples-one which liberal internationalists used to champion. Democratic liberationists (a.k.a. "neo-Wilsonians") need to stop pretending that they have cornered the market in the appeal to moral principle, especially considering that they urge us to blast away at what Wilson, their supposed patron saint, viewed as a central pillar of a just and peaceful international order.

David Hendrickson is a professor of political science at Colorado College and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. He is the author of numerous books and articles including Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding (University Press of Kansas, 2003); and The Imperial Temptation: The New World Order and America’s Purpose (co-authored with Robert W. Tucker) (Council on Foreign Relations, 1992).

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Springtime for Realism - Discussion Forum

July 02, 2004

Discussion Forum: In the June 21, 2004 issue of The New Republic, Senior Editor Lawrence F. Kaplan worries that the ascendancy of realism and the decline of neo-conservatism will ultimately make the United States less secure from terrorism. The members of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy respectfully disagree.

In a letter to the editor of The New Republic ("The Real World," TNR, 8/9/04) Christopher Preble, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt point out that the neoconservatives, in their zeal to impose democracy in the Middle East, ignored nationalism "the most powerful political ideology in the world." The end result, the authors warn, has made the United States' terrorism problem worse, not better. Kaplan, in his response, claimed that his article "amounts to a brief against imposing democracy by force."

Let the readers decide. For the next few weeks, the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy will host a discussion surrounding these and other articles.

We encourage you to read and comment, and to suggest other articles or blog postings that can shed light on this crucial debate over the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

Please note: This is a moderated forum, and all submissions will be reviewed before posting online. Please include a working e-mail address with your submission.

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The Unrealism of American Empire

The collapse of American prestige has caused millions to turn away from America's example. Christopher Preble warns that we will regret our misadventures even more if anger and resentment turn to violence, as they did on 9/11.

The Unrealism of American Empire

by Christopher Preble

According to Lawrence F. Kaplan ["Springtime for Realism," TNR, June 21, 2004], the mere existence of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy suggests that realism is ascendant in the halls of power. This is unfortunate, he says, because "realism can't win the war on terrorism."

Kaplan's lament is noteworthy because it reveals that he and his ideological allies are in full retreat. Their theories supposing that America can and must impose democracy around the world have washed up on the rocks. While the tragedy of Iraq is immense, and the costs immeasurable, the collapse of democratic imperialism as a guiding theory for U.S. foreign policy is good news--or, at least, it will be, just so long as these reckless notions remain where they belong: in the dustbin of history.

I am not so confident, however, that Kaplan and other proponents of American democratic empire have truly surrendered. Even now they are arguing that their theories were sound, but that the Bush administration has botched the implementation. It is worthwhile, therefore, to point out the many flaws in his arguments.

First of all, Kaplan and his colleagues at the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq believed that the Iraqis would welcome the United States as a liberating power, and would accept a lengthy military occupation of their country while we established a social order that would allow for democracy to take root. In arguing this case, Kaplan et al repeatedly dismissed the professional opinion of area experts who warned that the Iraqis were distrustful of outside interference, and would be particularly indisposed to tolerate, much less welcome, an American occupation.

In his zeal for imposing democracy, Kaplan seems to have completely ignored nationalism, a factor far more powerful than a supposed universal desire for liberal democracy. While many Iraqis celebrated Saddam's demise, they have no desire to see an Arab autocrat replaced by a government seen to be serving the wishes of a foreign power. The Iraqis want their country back, a sentiment they have expressed clearly in the aftermath of Saddamís overthrow. These nationalist impulses are now manifested mostly in the form of a popular uprising in support of Moqtada al-Sadr, a junior Islamic cleric who only became relevant in the face of American occupation. Sadr is no democrat, and certainly not a liberal, but he enjoys, according to one poll, the ìstrongî support of nearly a third of all Iraqis, and some support from another third. He is now among the three most admired figures in the country. In short, the presence of foreign troops in Iraq is empowering our enemies and undermining our friends.

But far beyond what we are now witnessing in Iraq, Kaplan's strategy was, and is, remarkably unrealistic because it is impossible for a foreign power--any foreign power--to impose democracy, whether at the barrel of a gun or by other means. Democracy is based upon self-determination and can only flourish when the ingredients for political liberalization are allowed to develop and grow. This process cannot be accelerated by outside forces practicing militarized social engineering.

Kaplan believes otherwise. He states that "pressure for democracy . . . will come from the United States or it will come from nowhere at all" and he dismisses America's past attempts to transform states by force, and now those of the Bush administration, as based on a "cartoon version of democratization." His method for imposing democracy, presumably, would fare much better. It would likely begin with many more troops. But if 140,000 American troops are insufficient to provide security in Iraq, how many would it take? Perhaps "several hundred thousand," as former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Shinseki argued before the invasion of Iraq? Recall that Shinseki was roundly criticized by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who dismissed Shinseki's numbers as "wildly off the mark." Was the Wolfowitz version of democratization "cartoonish"? Perhaps, but it would have been far more realistic, and honest, for Kaplan to concede that the American people would have never supported the invasion of Iraq--let alone the broader mission of democratizing the planet by force of arms--if they were more aware of the true costs.

Kaplan's disregard for these costs coincides with his contempt for the belief that the defense of "vital interests" should be at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. It was precisely this disregard for U.S. interests, vital or otherwise, that caused the United States to maintain all of its military commitments from the Cold War, add several new missions in the Balkans and elsewhere during the 1990s, and successively pile on a host of new obligations on the overburdened military following the events of 9/11. Kaplan seems to expect that our all-volunteer force will shoulder these burdens indefinitely, and that Americans not serving in the military will provide whatever the Defense Department needs without asking any questions. How realistic is that?

The members of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy prefer a world that is more free to one that is less so, but we have a realistic sense of the United States' limited ability to bring this about. Playing off the spiteful image on the issue's cover, it is worth remembering that the Statue of Liberty is holding a torch, not a Tomahawk cruise missile. Opponents of Kaplan's imperial America project don't seek to turn off Lady Liberty's light, but we recognize that the images of empire, including American tanks in the streets of Iraq, have caused hundreds of millions of people to turn away from its promise. It is hardly realistic to think that the world, which now looks upon American power with such fear and trepidation, will embrace America's example any time soon. It is even more unrealistic to think that we can force them to do so.

Christopher Preble is a founding member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy ( and director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute (

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