Early in The Wilsonian Moment, Erez Manela tells a story about Ho Chi Minh that I often heard in student Communist circles in India. Ho was an indigent worker in Paris when Woodrow Wilson arrived in the city in 1919 with a plan to make the world ‘safe for democracy’. Inspired by Wilson’s advocacy of national self-determination, Ho sought an audience with the US president, hoping to persuade him to use his new influence to restore Vietnamese rule in French Indo-China. He carefully quoted from the US Declaration of Independence in his petition. In Manela’s more poignant version, he also rented a morning suit. Needless to say, Ho got nowhere near Wilson or any other Western leader; he found a sympathetic audience only among French Communists.
Many Communist students I knew in India repeated with reverence the story of Ho’s failed mission because it appeared to confirm their ur-text, Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Written in 1916, this pamphlet had proved that Wilson was as unlikely to restore Indo-China to the Vietnamese as he was to withdraw American troops from Panama. The United States was as much of an imperialist power as Britain and Japan, greedy for resources, territory and markets, part of a capitalist world system of oppression and plunder whose inherent instability had caused the Great War.
Lenin’s text came to many of us in the Indian provinces as an exhilarating revelation. No amount of praise appeared sufficient for the Soviet leader who had pre-empted Wilson in calling for national self-determination. Hadn’t he exposed the secret agreement between France, Britain and tsarist Russia to carve up the Middle East, among other booty of the imperialist war? True to his anti-imperialist rhetoric, he had promised autonomy to Russia’s ethnic minorities and had voluntarily given up the special concessions Russia enjoyed in subjugated China along with other Western powers and Japan.
Communist study circles did not of course discuss what Stalin made of Lenin’s promise to Russia’s ethnic nationalities, or how Asian Communists overturned Lenin’s facile equation – imperialism equals monopoly capitalism – when in the early 1960s China accused the Soviet Union of imperialist aggression. I learned even less about the capitalist rival of Marxist internationalism: liberal internationalism, which originated in the Progressive Movement of the United States and, as eloquently articulated by Woodrow Wilson, enjoyed worldwide appeal for a few hopeful months after the end of the First World War, when a new world order seemed likely to rise on the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and Russian Empires.
Trawling through four national archives, Manela has produced an immensely rich and important work of comparative politics centred on the ‘Wilsonian moment’, which he dates from autumn 1918 to spring 1919. ‘Disseminated to a growing global audience’, Wilson’s rousing speeches leading up to the Paris Peace Conference earned him, as Maynard Keynes later recorded, ‘a prestige and a moral influence throughout the world unequalled in history’. Emboldened by him, nationalist leaders in Egypt and India joined Sinn Féin in seriously challenging British authority, and China and Korea grew more aggressive in their demands for political and economic autonomy.
Anti-colonialists everywhere had been transfixed by the swift rise of the United States, a new political and economic power rare among Western nations for possessing a strong tradition of anti-imperialism. For much of the 19th century, the United States had been isolationist in its foreign policy and protectionist in its economic; and its footprint was light in Asia and Africa, where, as even Raymond Aron conceded, the natives did not need to read or even understand Lenin, or have to deal with a repressive imperial police state, to identify Europe with imperialism. There was enough evidence for it in everyday life and memory: ‘the exploitation of raw materials without any attempt to create local industry; the destruction of native crafts and the stunted growth of industrial development that resulted from the influx of European goods; high interest rates on loans; ownership of major businesses by foreign capitalists’.
The war, which enfeebled the economies of the major imperialist powers – Britain, Germany and France – and further discredited their regimes, endowed America with both power and moral prestige. Wilson, who barely had a foreign policy before war broke out in Europe in 1914, wasn’t slow to realise the implications of European turmoil for the United States; and he fleshed out a new and noble American sense of mission before he reluctantly took his country into the European war. ‘We are provincials no longer,’ he famously declared in his second inaugural address in March 1917. Though still publicly opposed to American intervention in the war, he insisted that ‘our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not.’
In speeches addressed to ‘the peoples of the countries now at war’ he burnished his credentials as a mediator who could negotiate what he called (borrowing the phrase from Walter Lippmann, the energetic young editor of the New Republic) a ‘peace without victory’. Later, he would propose a much more unusual and high-minded plan for enduring peace – replacing militarist regimes with democracies – which liberal intellectuals as well as conservative politicians would invoke with diminishing returns throughout the 20th century, culminating in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which inspired the New Republic to declare George W. Bush ‘the most Wilsonian president since Wilson himself’.
Wilson had begun to outline the American preference for regime change in unfriendly countries well before he declared war on Germany. Faced in late 1913 with revolution and the likely rejection of American influence in Mexico, he had decided to ‘teach the South American republics to elect good men’. ‘When properly directed,’ he claimed, ‘there is no people not fitted for self-government.’ Wilson was also convinced that proper direction in the postwar order could be provided only by the United States. When his peace overtures failed, he went to war in April 1917, still confident that ‘we are chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.’
Wilson, an academic by training, was fortified in his convictions by such liberal intellectuals as John Dewey, Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly (co-founder of the New Republic), who believed that by joining the war America would make the world safe for democracy rather than, as was the case, help the Allied powers deliver a knockout blow to the Germans. As Randolph Bourne, a young critic whose opposition to American intervention made him an outcast among liberal intellectuals, pointed out as early as August 1917, the United States had lost whatever leverage it had as an impartial mediator when it declared war on Germany.
Nevertheless, Wilson pressed ahead with his scheme for a democratic international order, which he hoped would be cemented by a League of Nations. Speaking to Congress in January 1918 he revealed his most ambitious project yet: a 14-point manifesto for the new world envisaged by the United States. Secret diplomacy was to have no place, and free trade, popular government, freedom of the seas, the reduction of armaments, the rights of small countries, and an association of nations to keep the peace were to be the new articles of faith.
Wilson’s Fourteen Points would have been lofty ideals at any time (God, as Clemenceau joked, had only ten). They were particularly unrealistic during a global war that would soon end with Britain, France and Japan adding to their possessions in the Middle East, Africa and East Asia. As it turned out, Wilson was soon forced to compromise his ideals while dealing with the victorious allies at the postwar peace conference in Paris.
It is likely that Wilson would not have stepped up the rhetorical ante in January 1918 if the Bolsheviks had not withdrawn Russia from the war and called on workers and soldiers to cease fighting one another and become revolutionaries against their own rulers. In asserting that America was fighting for a better world, Wilson was trying to undercut Bolshevik claims that the war was a struggle among imperialist powers, with the victorious elites likely to share the spoils. He aimed to influence those Americans and Europeans who, growing tired of the endless fighting, appeared dangerously susceptible to Bolshevik propaganda. Almost by accident, he reached a much bigger and more receptive audience in the colonised world.
Marxism was then being studied and debated in many Asian cities and towns where European traders and missionaries had set up Western-style educational institutions. But the Russian Revolution and its anti-imperialist ethos was not much known. The United States, too, was an unknown player in international relations, and its record in the Philippines or Latin America – Wilson’s imposition, for instance, of military protectorates on Haiti and Nicaragua – went mostly unexamined. Boosted by a slick propaganda campaign, Wilson easily won the first round of his war of ideas with the Bolsheviks, heralding a world where small nations would enjoy the right of self-determination. And so ‘when peace came,’ Manela writes, ‘colonial peoples moved to claim their place in that world on the basis of Wilson’s proclamations.’
In Egypt, Sa’d Zaghlul, a liberal reformist, organised a new political party called the Wafd (‘delegation’) in preparation for the Paris Peace Conference. Soon after war began, the British had declared Egypt a protectorate of the British Empire, formalising their invasion and occupation of the country in 1882. Zaghlul, who is known in Egypt as the Father of the Nation, denounced the protectorate as illegal and hoped to enlist Wilson on his side. ‘No people more than the Egyptian people,’ he wrote in a telegram to Wilson, ‘has felt strongly the joyous emotion of the birth of a new era which, thanks to your virile action, is soon going to impose itself upon the universe.’
Inspired by Wilson’s rhetoric, nationalist leaders in Korea wrote their own Declaration of Independence. Expectations ran even higher in India and China, which had contributed more than a million soldiers and labourers to the Allied war effort in Europe and the Middle East. Tagore wanted to dedicate one of his books to Wilson and, stirred by Wilson’s wartime speeches, Hindu and Muslim leaders of the Indian National Congress jointly demanded to send their delegates – Gandhi among them – to represent India at the peace conference. In Beijing students gathered in front of the American Embassy chanting ‘Long Live President Wilson!’ Liang Qichao, the reformist intellectual and earliest inspiration of Mao Zedong, went to Paris to ensure that China’s sovereignty was respected by the victorious powers, particularly Japan, which, in a campaign green-lighted by Britain during the war, had seized German-held territory in the Shandong peninsula.
Asians and Africans accustomed to stonewalling colonial officials were naturally attracted to the generous promises of the American president. But Wilson, a Southerner who shared the reflexive racism of many in his class and generation (and liked to tell jokes about ‘darkies’), was an unlikely hero in the alleys of Delhi, Cairo and Canton. Piously Presbyterian, and a helpless anglophile (he had courted his wife with quotations from Bagehot and Burke), he had hoped that in the Philippines and Puerto Rico the United States would follow the British tradition of instructing ‘less civilised’ peoples in law and order. After all, ‘they are children and we are men in these deep matters of government and justice.’
Ho Chi Minh would not have bothered to rent a morning suit had he known that Wilson believed as much as his bellicose rival Theodore Roosevelt in America’s responsibility to shoulder the white man’s burden. In January 1917 Wilson argued that America should stay out of the war in order, as he said in a cabinet meeting, to ‘keep the white race strong against the yellow – Japan for instance’. He believed, as he told his secretary of state, Robert Lansing, that ‘“white civilisation” and its domination over the world rested largely on our ability to keep this country intact.’ Though apparently all-encompassing, his rhetoric about self-determination was aimed at the European peoples – Poles, Romanians, Czechs, Serbs – who were part of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. In his effort to establish the League of Nations as a framework for collective security and enduring peace in Europe, he had little interest in persuading Britain and France to relinquish their colonial possessions.
Not that this was possible. Wilson had had his chance in the spring of 1917 when he first heard of the secret treaties that outlined how Britain, France, Japan and Italy planned to divide up entire empires among themselves after the war. He could have made American intervention contingent on the Allied powers cancelling these arrangements. Instead, he pretended that the treaties didn’t exist, and even tried to prevent their publication in the US after the Bolsheviks exposed their existence.
Travelling to Europe in 1919, Wilson hoped to appeal directly to the people, over the heads of their leaders. Ecstatic crowds in France and Italy credited him with hastening the end of a deeply unloved war, but in Paris he confronted hardened and cynical imperialists in Lloyd George and Clemenceau. After several internecine wars, Europe’s imperial powers had arrived at a balance-of-power politics. Their representatives in Paris hoped to restore the equilibrium that war had disrupted by reducing Germany’s power; and Wilson kept compromising in the hope that old and new problems in the world order would be solved by his cherished League of Nations.
Mao Zedong caught Wilson’s haplessness in Paris perfectly:
Wilson in Paris was like an ant on a hot skillet. He didn’t know what to do. He was surrounded by thieves like Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Makino and Orlando. He heard nothing except accounts of receiving certain amounts of territory and of reparations worth so much in gold. He did nothing except to attend various kinds of meetings where he could not speak his mind. One day a Reuters telegram read: ‘President Wilson has finally agreed with Clemenceau’s view that Germany not be admitted to the League of Nations.’ When I saw the words ‘finally agreed’, I felt sorry for him for a long time. Poor Wilson!
The League, rejected by the US Senate, turned out to be a fiasco. Wilson’s failures in Paris angered and eventually lost him his liberal supporters at the New Republic. Defeated over Germany, he barely put up a fight when it came to the rights of non-European peoples, many of whom – including the Persians and Syrians – did not get a hearing at the conference. Though backed by a majority of votes, a clause for racial equality proposed by the Japanese delegation foundered because Wilson feared alienating the British and their Australian allies, who wanted to maintain their White Australia Policy.
To a large extent anglophilia blinded Wilson and his advisers, mostly members of the East Coast WASP elite, to anti-colonial feelings in Asia and Africa. The American secretary of state fully backed British rule over Egypt. Allen Dulles, a future Cold Warrior who was then a state department official, suggested that Egyptian demands ‘should not even be acknowledged’. The British, working the special relationship to their advantage, ensured that petitions sent to Wilson in Paris were filed away never to be heard of again; they also told Wilson that Tagore was a dangerous revolutionary (he didn’t get permission for his dedication).
Indian and Korean nationalists didn’t get anywhere near Paris. India was represented by a delegation picked by the British, including a maharajah in a flamboyant red turban. The Egyptians suffered a deeper humiliation. In March 1919 the British arrested Zaghlul and deported him to Malta, provoking widespread public protests in Egypt – what later came to be known as the 1919 Revolution. Faced with nationwide revolt, the British relented and allowed Zaghlul to go to Paris. But while he was honing his English, the British managed to persuade the Americans that Bolsheviks had plotted with Islamic fanatics to fuel the unrest in Egypt. Zaghlul was on his way from Marseille to Paris when Wilson recognised the British protectorate. The Egyptian journalist Muhammad Haykal expressed the general outrage when he wrote:
Here was the man of the Fourteen Points, among them the right to self-determination, denying the Egyptian people its right to self-determination . . . And doing all that before the delegation on behalf of the Egyptian people had arrived in Paris to defend its claim, and before President Wilson had heard one word from them! Is this not the ugliest of treacheries?!
The sense of betrayal was even stronger among millions of Chinese who, unlike the Indians and the Koreans, were adequately represented at the conference. Wilson was sympathetic to Chinese claims on Japanese-occupied Shandong, but he could not persuade Lloyd George and Clemenceau to rescind their wartime promises to Japan. News of China’s failure in May 1919 brought enraged students out on the streets of Beijing, denouncing the US president as a liar. Demonstrations and strikes erupted across China in what would later be known as the May Fourth Movement, an explosion of intellectual and political energy that reverberated through the next decades.
‘The emergence of the Wilsonian moment had heralded the end of a great conflict, the European war,’ Manela writes, ‘but its dissipation gave rise to a greater one still, one “between East and West, between imperialism and self-determination”.’ Western powers could not forever ignore or suppress the nationalist claims and in 1922 China, which had refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles, received a new settlement, restoring Japanese-held areas in Shandong to its sovereignty. Egypt remained volatile, and in the same year the British were forced to grant it a degree of self-rule. In India they tried to retain the repressive policies introduced during the war; but the killing of four hundred demonstrators in Amritsar in April 1919 only accelerated the transformation of the Indian National Congress from a gentleman’s debating club into a mass political party.
‘The new era of self-determination’, as Manela writes, had come, but ‘it was one of conflict rather than co-operation.’ Wilson’s apparent complicity with old-style imperialists united many educated Asians in what Manela calls ‘cynical hostility to Western civilisation’. The early generation of Asian intellectuals and activists had looked to their Western conquerors with awe and admiration. Their nationalism tended to be frankly ‘derivative’, an admission that those who wanted to catch up with the West could do no better than learn from its industrialism and the obviously superior institutions of liberal democracy. But such bourgeois gradualism no longer seemed so attractive to many anti-colonial intellectuals after the Paris Peace Conference.
Liberals such as Tagore who believed in synthesis, a dialogue between West and East, felt particularly humiliated. Gandhi had never expected much of Woodrow Wilson but Tagore had, and on a lecture tour of the United States in 1930 he unexpectedly turned on his American audience, who were probably expecting to be educated about Eastern spirituality. ‘Our appeal does not reach you,’ Tagore said, ‘because you respond only to the appeal of power. Japan appealed to you and you answered because she was able to prove she would make herself as obnoxious as you can.’ Only a deep lingering bitterness could have made the poet tell a New York audience including Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Morgenthau and Sinclair Lewis that ‘a great portion of the world suffers from your civilisation.’
Travelling to Paris, Wilson may have believed that liberalism ‘must be more liberal than ever before, it must even be radical, if civilisation is to escape the typhoon’. But secular liberalism in Muslim countries under direct British control had been tainted well before the true scale of British duplicity in the Middle East was revealed at the end of the war. Even the moderate Islamic scholar, Egypt’s grand mufti Muhammad Abduh, said that ‘we Egyptians . . . believed once in English liberalism and English sympathy; but we believe no longer, for facts are stronger than words. Your liberalness we see plainly is only for yourselves, and your sympathy with us is that of the wolf for the lamb which he designs to eat.’
In China, hostility to Japan and anger at the country’s own fractious warlords fused with anti-Western sentiment to create a sharper-edged nationalism. Western-style liberalism would continue to enjoy a vogue among educated, well-travelled Chinese. But the 20-year-old poet Qu Qiubai, a student of Buddhism who later became a crucial contact in Moscow for the fledgling Chinese Communist Party, found – and he was not alone – that ‘the sharp pain of imperialistic oppression’ liberated him from the illusions of ‘impractical democratic reforms’. Mao Zedong was left with an enduring suspicion of Western motives and policies, and a broader awareness of the political possibilities available to subjugated peoples. As Manela puts it,
the Chinese protest against international injustice, Mao discovered, was part of a wider pattern of uprisings of marginalised groups in international society striving for the recognition of their rights to self-determination and equality. Only the transformation of the norms and practices of international relations would allow China to attain its rightful place among nations.
Manela believes that ‘the rise of Communism in China and elsewhere in the early 1920s was part of that quest, as the failure of the liberal anti-colonialism of the Wilsonian moment to fulfil its promise sparked a search for alternative ideologies.’ After initial successes, Wilson’s influence was overtaken by Lenin’s; China may have been ‘lost’ to Communism not, as the Cold Warriors alleged, in 1949, but in 1919. State-regulated capitalism rather than central planning would bring China – and India – close to their rightful place among nations in the age of globalisation; but the change of economic models did not diminish the lustre of national sovereignty. Nationalist feeling, defined by these early anti-imperialist campaigns for equality, remains potent in both countries, continuing to fuel middle-class Chinese and Indian desires for greater dignity in a world where economic power is shifting back to Asia.
Faced with an enormous task of compression, Manela can only outline how anti-colonial nationalism drew on a great suspicion of Western politicians with noble ideals as well as of those with guns. It would be too much to expect him also to examine Wilson’s legacy, the ‘liberal internationalism’ whose tattered flag was held up most recently by liberal hawks supporting the invasion of Iraq. It is hard, however, to read his book without wondering how those espousing compassionately liberal policies at home become susceptible to violent humanitarianism abroad – what Randolph Bourne incredulously called ‘war in the interests of democracy’. ‘This was almost the sum of their philosophy,’ Bourne wrote of his old friends. ‘The primitive idea to which they regressed became almost insensibly translated into a craving for action.’
Wilson chose to cast American interests abroad in highly moral, even mystical terms, claiming that, as Bourne described it, the United States had been ‘ordained as a nation to lead all erring brothers towards the light of liberty and democracy’; and since the objectives of liberal democracies coincide, Germany could become peaceful by discarding its militarist regime and embracing democracy with American help. (The more corporate-friendly version of this peculiarly American idea is Thomas Friedman’s belief that countries where McDonald’s burgers are eaten never go to war with each other.)
In Paris, Lloyd George and Clemenceau demonstrated that leaders of democracies could be just as brazenly imperialistic as military dictators. But then Wilson, who had presided over a serious erosion of civil liberties at home during the war, was no stranger to moral compromises in foreign policy: he had supported, for instance, China’s militarist president Yuan Shikai against the nationalists allied with Sun Yat-sen in 1913 in the hope of keeping America’s ‘Open Door’ to China.
Such expediencies were later to define the Cold War, in which the United States, as Dean Acheson unironically proclaimed, was ‘willing to help people who believe the way we do, to continue to live the way they want to live’. Or, as the current national security adviser, trying to explain Bush’s recent farewell calls on pro-American dictators in the Middle East, put it, ‘these folks . . . are on board with the freedom agenda and they are pursuing it in their own fashion.’
Wilson’s rhetorical achievement – which distinguished him sharply from traditional European practitioners of realpolitik – was to present America’s strategic and political interests as moral imperatives, and its foreign interventions as necessary acts of international responsibility. European leaders periodically stressed their civilising mission, but no one before Wilson endowed national exceptionalism with such a modern and unimpeachably noble aspiration as ‘democracy’.
Intoxicated by the moral passions of Wilsonianism, American liberal intellectuals would work harder than their European counterparts to justify wars that political leaders promised would make the world safe for democracy. These sincere believers would also be more vulnerable, when faced with the collapse of their bold schemes, to the guilt-laden ‘fear that what we had meant, and what alone could justify it all, was not the meaning and the justification of those who will decide’ – Lippmann’s words, which handily summarise the long, tormented mea culpas produced by liberal hawks after the catastrophe in Iraq.
What neither hard-headed politicians nor their intellectual dupes fully understood was how the rhetoric of liberalism and democracy had gone down in the colonised world. Certainly, Wilson, working deep in a world run by and for white men, could have little sense of the bitterness and disillusionment felt by his ‘darkie’ admirers. But the excuse of racial and intellectual seclusion could not be claimed by apparently liberal politicians and journalists who stridently echoed Wilson’s rhetoric after the collapse of Communism when the world seemed riper for remaking, more ready to absorb Western values while fulfilling Western interests, than at any time since 1919.
‘We are all internationalists now,’ Tony Blair declared to the Chicago Economic Club in April 1999, in the midst of bombing Serbia. ‘In the end,’ he said, ‘values and interests merge. If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society then that is in our national interests too.’ Dazzled by the wealth and power of fin-de-siècle America (as though returning the compliment after decades of anglophilia among the American ruling class), Blair and other New Labourites turned out to be the most eager European consumers of Wilson’s potpourri of values and interests. Their eloquence proved useful to the most Wilsonian – but also the most inarticulate – of American presidents, and his cronies.
The victories of the Cold War – and the giddy speculation that history had reached the ideological terminus of liberal democracy – revived illusions of omnipotence among an Anglo-American political and media elite that has always known very little about the modern world it claims to have made. Consequently, almost every event since the end of the Cold War – the rise of radical Islam, of India and China, the assertiveness of oil-rich Russia, Iran and Venezuela – has come as a shock, a rude reminder that the natives of Delhi, Cairo and Beijing have geopolitical ambitions of their own, not to mention a sense of history marked by resentment and suspicion of the metropolitan West. The liberal internationalists persist, trying to revive the Wilsonian moment in places where Anglo-American liberalism has been seen as an especially aggressive form of hypocrisy. Increasingly, however, they expose themselves as the new provincials, dangerously blundering about in a volatile world.