Academic journal article Parameters

Woodrow Wilson in Our Time: NATO's Goals in Kosovo

Academic journal article Parameters

Woodrow Wilson in Our Time: NATO's Goals in Kosovo

Article excerpt

Confronted with the political disintegration of the Yugoslav federation in the early 1990s, historian John Lukacs observed that Woodrow Wilson was in retrospect beginning to make Lenin look like a small fry. "The ideas of this pale Presbyterian professor-president," he wrote, "were more revolutionary than those of the Bolshevik radical from the middle Volga region."' It's hard to argue with that. Just as Wilson's propagation of national self-determination destroyed European empires in 1918, it also demolished states Wilson helped to create-Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia-and it continues to pose challenges to the sovereignty of states that did not exist in Wilson's time. For all the mischief and misery it begat, the Soviet Union is gone. The ideas upon which it was founded are today taken seriously by nobody of consequence. Lenin is dead, but Wilson lives as possibly the most vital force in the international relations of our time.

This the more so, possibly, because Wilson himself is presently so badly understood. His Fourteen Points, presented to Congress on 8 January 1918, was simultaneously a statement of war aims and the proposed blueprint of principles for postwar peace. "An evident principle runs through the whole program," Wilson noted, "the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak." [2] By declaring balance-of-power diplomacy defunct and raising national self-determination as a principle on which peace would henceforth depend, Wilson prescribed nothing less than a fundamental reconstitution of international relations.

However, as a President-at-war and international statesman he was in many respects less idealistic in 1919 than we tend to be now. Wilsonian internationalism-of which both the principle of national self-determination and the "opinion" of humankind in support of it became integral parts-was an ideological innovation of American foreign policy in response to the extraordinary threats posed by imperialism, fascism, and communism to the liberal democracies. Historian Frank Ninkovich points out that as they were interpreted and put into practice by his successors, Wilson's ideals amounted to a set of principles imperfectly applied to navigate American diplomacy through the century-long crisis "until the kind of world envisioned at the beginning of the century once again came into view." [3] As of 1989, in other words, Wilsonianism could be considered a self-liquidating creed.

In the year 2001, moreover, we have the benefit of more than 80 years of European history to which Wilson could not turn for evidence that his hopes for international peace were justified. Wilson held, for example, that after 1919 democratic governments emerging in the place of autocracy would never permit the catastrophe of 1914-18 to happen again. He believed further that he understood better what was in the hearts and minds of the populace of the new German republic than the defunct regime that had taken the Kaiserreich to war. As it turned out, he was wrong. The Weimar Republic committed suicide at the polls, and its successor put self-determination to work in the name of Sudeten Germans but in the service of conquest. Today, illiberal democracy is fashionable as never before. Populist demagogues, many of them elected, cultivate ethnic resentment and ride it to power. [4]

Over the past decade ethnonationalism--the mobilization of ethnic minorities in pursuit of political goals, ranging from redress of specific grievances against the majority population to outright secession and independent statehood--has established itself as possibly the most potent threat to international peace and stability. The principle of national self-determination was critical to the dismantling of the Soviet Union and thus a radical reduction of its military menace to the West. But the same process simultaneously unleashed long-repressed political energies which, in the prophetic words of Max Kampelman, could "drag much of Europe back into the shadows from which [it] has so recently emerged. …

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