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Obama the realist idealist

2 August 2009

The failure of Woodrow Wilson at the Paris peace conference holds a lesson for the US president, writes Geoffrey Barker


Above: British prime minister David Lloyd George, Italian prime minister Vittorio Orlando, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau and US president Woodrow Wilson at the Paris peace talks in May 1919.
Photo: Edward N. Jackson/ US Signal Corps

Above: British prime minister David Lloyd George, Italian prime minister Vittorio Orlando, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau and US president Woodrow Wilson at the Paris peace talks in May 1919.
Photo: Edward N. Jackson/ US Signal Corps

NINETY YEARS AGO President Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris determined to establish a League of Nations to prevent a repetition of the Great War, in which some sixteen million soldiers and civilians had perished. Despite the belated US entry into the war in 1917, Wilson was in a strong position at the Paris peace talks: American military power had been decisive in helping to achieve the armistice after four years of slaughter between 1914 and 1918.

In January 1918, before the war ended, Wilson had set out his vision for the post-war world in his famous “fourteen points” address to the US Congress. Wilson believed the United States had not only a moral obligation to spread American democratic and social values throughout the world but also a national interest in doing so, and he wanted an arbitration organisation set up to prevent nation states from resorting again to war.

It was, of course, a dismal failure. The US Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and the United States did not ultimately join the League of Nations; for its part, the League did not manage to replace warfare with legally enforceable arbitration. Moreover, the onerous reparations imposed on defeated Germany helped to create conditions for the rise of Nazism and for the 1939–45 world war. The sixteen million killed, including 61,500 Australians, had died in vain.

For Wilson the Paris peace conference was a political catastrophe. His cynical European counterparts, especially George Clemenceau of France and Britain’s Lord Robert Cecil, did not share his democratic idealism. They wanted to preserve the privileged position of the great powers and to punish Germany. At the same time Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, a distinguished lawyer, disagreed profoundly with the president’s approach and tried to tell him so.

Wilson chose to ignore Lansing’s advice in Paris and in early in 1920 he asked Lansing to resign. Lansing did so and twelve months later published a book, The Peace Negotiations: A Personal Narrative (Houghton Miflin, 1921), which was highly critical of Wilson. Lansing’s book eerily anticipated problems to come in affairs. It also exposed the gap between Wilson’s high-flown public rhetoric and his low flying private behaviour as he tried to get British and French agreement to the League of Nations. It contained lessons about summit diplomacy which are still relevant to students and practitioners of foreign policy, including Americans, Australians and others with limited historical understanding. Of Lansing’s book, more later.

Despite setbacks, Wilsonian idealism and later liberal ism have remained key elements in the US foreign policy tradition, transcending the Democrat–Republican political divide. Their main intellectual rivals have been versions of realism, historically associated with presidents Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which argue that American policy should be “less concerned about spreading democracy abroad than about safeguarding it at home.” Realism is less optimistic than idealism about human nature and rationality. It accepts the anarchic and amoral character of the order and focuses on national interest, military strength and maintaining a balance of power to preserve peace. George Kennan and Henry Kissinger are the great modern American practitioners of realism.

Both Wilsonianism and realism have, at different times and on different issues, dominated American foreign policy. They are not mutually exclusive and are adaptable to different political circumstances at different times. Nevertheless it is a significant issue for American allies, including Australia, whether or not a US administration is more likely, more often, to take Wilsonian positions in dealing with issues.

The likely foreign policy emphasis of President Barak Obama is of particular interest to Australia given Canberra’s close involvement with US military engagements. A great many Australian lives and money are stake in any military commitment. Will Obama tend towards a foreign policy grounded in law and organisations? Or is he more likely to tilt towards the use of US and allied military power to protect US and allied national interests in an anarchic world?

Some of Obama’s early foreign policy initiatives suggest sympathy with the Wilsonian tradition. He has stressed the importance of multilateral approaches to affairs rather than the bilateral and even unilateral approaches of the previous Bush administration. He has sought to reach out to countries labeled “evil” by his predecessor George Bush. He has abandoned the “with us or against us” mindset of the Bush administration, which sought to use US military power to impose American-style democracy on places like Iraq and Afghanistan with results that too often proved terrible. (Bush was, arguably, Wilsonian too, at least in as much as he believed that the US had a moral duty to impose its views on the world, unilaterally and by force if necessary.)

Obama has proposed global solutions in global forums to global problems including climate change and economic crisis. He has urged major reductions in US and Soviet nuclear arsenals. He has sought improved relations with Russia, China, Cuba, Iran and even North Korea. He has moved to shut down secret CIA detention and torture facilities around the world and to close Guantanamo Bay.

Obama might share Bush’s view of the United States’ duty to set the world to rights. But as the Economist magazine recently noted, Obama’s actions imply a view that “the world is a complicated and interdependent place; America cannot and should not act alone; it should listen to other countries, and work with other countries, and through the United Nations; and it should lead wherever possible by example, not be intervention.”

Obama’s more tolerant Wilsonianism was on display in April when he said, “The fact that I am very proud of my country… does not lessen my interest in recognising the value and wonderful qualities of other countries or recognising that we’re not always going to be right or that other people may have good ideas or that in order for us to work collectively all parties have to compromise and that includes us.”

He has also expressed his reluctance to intervene, boot and saddle, in other countries. “The threshold at which intervention is appropriate I think has to be very high. There has to be strong outrage at what’s taking place. It’s not always going to be a neat decision,” he said.

If all this sounds essentially Wilsonian there also strong strands of the sort of balance-of-power realism that would appeal to Jefferson, Roosevelt, Kennan and Kissinger. Obama has surged extra forces into Afghanistan as the US commitment to Iraq has wound down. He has not hesitated to order bombing attacks on suspected terrorist targets in Pakistan. US secretary of state Hilary Clinton has declared US foreign policy “a blend of principle and pragmatism.” “We remain ready to engage with Iran,” she said, “but the time for action is now. The opportunity will not remain open indefinitely.” She has also said: “If you are pursuing nuclear weapons for the purpose of intimidating, of projecting your power, we are not going to let that happen.” And she has warned North Korea that it would face “unrelenting pressure of sanctions” unless it moved towards denuclearisation.”

Taken together, Obama’s remarks on the threshold for armed intervention, and Clinton’s remarks, signal that Obama’s Wilsonianism has limits. He is realist (or cynical) enough to remain sceptical about Wilsonianism even as he moves in these early months of his presidency to seek cooperative partnerships with US competitors and opponents. This calibrated ambiguity is entirely proper and not surprising. But it suggests that Obama will not be reluctant pursue coercion if cooperation fails. In this he is no different to any other great power leader defending national interests and advancing national ambitions. High ideals survive with great difficulty in the company of realpolitik.

THIS IS A KEY lesson of Lansing’s book on the Paris peace negotiations. Obama would get as much from reading it as he gets from reading inspiring biographies of Abraham Lincoln. Of course Lansing, who died in 1928, wrote a self-serving account of why he was sacked, but his often agonised argument is nevertheless salutary for leaders who would seek to “do good.”

Lansing found himself at odds with Wilson on most basic questions concerning the peace talks. He tried and failed to persuade Wilson to stay in Washington and to leave the negotiations to his team of commissioners. Lansing feared that if Wilson attended he would “have to submit to the combined will of his foreign colleagues, becoming a prey to intrigue and to the impulses arising from their hatred for the vanquished nations.” How right he was.

Lansing opposed Wilson’s plan for an force to respond to peace breaches on the ground that it would limit US independence of action in the world and could compel the US to either send forces abroad or to repudiate treaty obligations. He realised that the proposal was constitutionally doubtful and unlikely to be ratified by the US Senate.

Lansing also saw that the peace talks were being dominated by the great powers and that it would not be possible to preserve the ideal of the equality of nations. He saw Wilson being outmanoeuvred by Clemenceau and the British negotiator Lord Robert Cecil, who were advocating a balance or concert of great powers. Of Wilson Lansing wrote: “In his eagerness to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ he abandoned democracy and became the advocate of autocracy.” He described Wilson’s “practical denial of the equality of nations” as the most serious defect in his approach.

Lansing was especially critical of Wilson’s resort to secret diplomacy with the other great powers. It breached Wilson’s pledge in his “fourteen points” speech. His first point had called for “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at… [N]o private understandings of any kind… diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.” Lansing thought it “a grievous blunder” that Wilson had “put himself on a level with politicians experienced in intrigue.” “It was evident,” he wrote, “that it was to be a ‘dictated peace’ and not a ‘negotiated peace.’”

There are lessons here for Obama and for American allies including Australia. One, obviously, is that good intentions are not enough. Lansing speaks of Wilson’s seemingly inflexible mind and his failure to prepare or adopt a program or to commit himself to a draft of a treaty. “It would have made a vast difference if the president had known definitely what he sought, but he apparently did not,” Lansing wrote.

A second is the gap between word and deed in negotiation. Wilsonian idealism appears to have lapsed easily back onto realism when Clemenceau and Cecil made their plays and when Wilson abandoned national equality and open diplomacy. There was peace, of sorts. There was also humiliation and a framework for the resentments that helped to feed Hitler. Ultimately appeasement trumped the balance of power and millions more were to die.

Lansing’s message across the years and from beyond the grave to Obama and to America’s allies is to stay focused, stay patient, and know what you want. By all means get the legal niceties right, and work as multilaterally as possible. But never forget the abiding importance of last-resort military force in preserving national security and national interests. That remains as true in 2009 as it was in 1919. •

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Above: Convict Jane New (Sophie Cleary) during filming of the second episode of Rogue Nation, screened on ABC TV in March.
Photo: Mark Rogers/ © Screen Australia

Above: Convict Jane New (Sophie Cleary) during filming of the second episode of Rogue Nation, screened on ABC TV in March.
Photo: Mark Rogers/ © Screen Australia