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Is Liberal Internationalism Dead?

MEDFORD – One hundred years ago this month, US President Woodrow Wilson was agonizing over whether to enter World War I. Just a few months earlier, Wilson had won re-election partly by campaigning on a policy of neutrality, which he was now preparing to abandon, along with the slogan “America first.” But now, for the first time in more than 80 years, a US president has taken it up again, to promote a foreign-policy stance that directly controverts the doctrine Wilson embraced.

It was not until 1919, after the war was over, that Wilson defined his foreign-policy vision of “liberal internationalism”: support for collective security and promotion of open markets among democracies, regulated by a system of multinational institutions ultimately dependent on the United States. Though the US Senate initially rejected Wilson’s vision, particularly his support for joining the League of Nations, Franklin D. Roosevelt revived liberal internationalism after 1933. It has helped to shape the foreign policies of most US presidents ever since – until Trump.

The “America first” approach that Trump advocates comprises disdain for NATO, contempt for the European Union, and mockery of Germany’s leadership role in Europe. It also includes rejection of economic openness, reflected in Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and call to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump has also pledged to back out of the Paris climate agreement.

Unlike Wilson, Trump seems to see no value in maintaining and deepening ties with other democracies. Instead, he seems drawn to authoritarian leaders – in particular, Russian President Vladimir Putin – and often leaves democratic leaders watching from the wings.

To be sure, if Wilson were alive today, he might agree with Trump on some issues, though his proposed solutions would be very different. For example, Wilson would probably concur with Trump that the level of openness in global markets today is excessive. It is indeed problematic that US banks and businesses can export capital, technology, and jobs as they please, with little or no regard for the domestic costs.

But Wilson’s solution would likely focus on developing and implementing improved regulations through a multilateral process dominated by democracies. Likewise, he would probably advocate a fiscal policy aimed at advancing the common good, with higher taxes on the wealthiest companies and households funding, say, infrastructure development, quality education, and universal health care.

In short, Wilson would endorse a program more like that of Democratic US Senator Elizabeth Warren or Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, featuring an advanced social-welfare system that enables broad-based prosperity. By contrast, Trump advocates lower taxes for the wealthy, and seems willing to embrace some form of state capitalism – if not crony capitalism – via protectionist policies and special incentives for companies to manufacture in the US.

Wilson might agree with Trump on another point: we cannot assume that democracy is a universal value with universal appeal. Like Trump, Wilson would probably eschew the idealistic nation- and state-building formulas that animated US foreign policy under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

But here, too, the differences overwhelm the similarities. Trump has decided that the US simply shouldn’t bother with the rest of the world, unless it gets something concrete in return. Wilson, by contrast, wanted to spread democracy for the sake of world peace, but in an indirect manner, working through the League of Nations. He believed that international institutions, the rule of law, common values, and an elite possessed of a democratic vision could ensure collective security and peaceful conflict resolution. What would begin as Pax Americana, he believed, would ultimately become a Pax Democratica.

This vision lies at the root of American “exceptionalism.” The claim is not simply that the US is, as Bill Clinton put it, the “indispensable nation,” whose global power makes it a party to all major international issues. It is also that the US can expect deference from other states, because it looks beyond its narrow self-interest to sustain an international order that supports peace, cooperation, and prosperity, particularly among the world’s democracies.

Not every US president has followed Wilson’s lead. The promise of liberal internationalism was snuffed out for three presidential administrations, from the election of Warren G. Harding in 1920 until FDR took office in 1933. With Trump, it is being snuffed out again. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land,” Trump declared at his inauguration. “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.”

But Wilson’s vision may not prove so easy to quash. Back in the twentieth century, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War impelled US policymakers to embrace liberal internationalism. Today, too, a tumultuous world is likely to vindicate its deep and enduring appeal.