How US President Woodrow Wilson ushered in a hundred years of hope

Versailles Conference

By William Stoltz

A century ago today, US president Woodrow Wilson set out a program to ensure ‘that the world be made fit and safe to live in’ and in doing so ushered in a new world order, writes William Stoltz.

January 8, 2018, marks one hundred years since the president of the United States of America, Woodrow Wilson, addressed the US Congress to outline the terms upon which the Great War should be brought to an end.

Wilson’s speech was as much a plea to the Allied nations to make the most of their imminent victory as it was a declaration of the circumstances under which peace could be made. However, what Wilson would enunciate in his short speech was more than the terms for ending the hostilities in Europe; they were the terms upon which all future hostilities might be ended.

The terms, a set of 14 points, constituted the most hopeful, ambitious and idealistic international program a world leader had ever articulated to that point: a plan for nothing less than world peace. While the plan would never be fully realised, the Fourteen Points reshaped the global order by laying down the principles around which international relations would be configured for the 20th century and beyond.

Wilson explained that the first aim of his program was “that the world be made fit and safe to live in”, and most of the Fourteen Points called for actions that would reconcile or rearrange the geopolitical rifts which had been the persistent source of European conflict such as restoring Belgium, breaking up Austria-Hungary, reorganising Italian territory, and creating a Polish state. These terms were intended to ensure that under no circumstances would the Central Empires exit the war with their territorial conquests intact Wilson and his fellow liberal internationalists were determined to end war as a means of national advancement

The other points of the president’s address outlined the principles which constituted the Wilsonian philosophy for international peace. Wilson declared that the sovereignty of all nations, regardless of size, must be considered equal and that by virtue of this equality all nations were entitled to freedom of navigation for peaceful purposes, such as trade. The president believed freedom of navigation was also vital to building a new era of trade in which states’ interests could be interwoven in a peace-inducing bond of mutual prosperity.

Wilson also described a new era of open diplomacy where the secret pacts between empires could be discarded, or exchanged for treaties arranged according to international law and open to the scrutiny of all nations. He argued, as many had, that state sovereignty could only extend from the people being governed; that it was only on their behalf that international relations could be conducted and maps redrawn.

Institutionalising this vision would be the League of Nations, in its time the most global and powerful international organisation ever proposed and the body from which the United Nations would later be built The League was intended as a forum for a new kind of multilateral diplomacy. It was here all matters affecting the peace and prosperity of humanity could be discussed and where laws which transcended all international behaviours could be determined through consensus. The League would be a forum for a new, constant global conversation, an ongoing diplomacy that is ubiquitous today and described by some as the “perpetual conference”.

The principles articulated in the Fourteen Points speech - such as freedom of navigation, equity among states, democratic sovereignty, openness, free trade, collective security and arbitration by international law - were not entirely new, nor were they the creation of Wilson’s administration alone; the British prime minister, Lloyd George, had made a not too dissimilar speech a few days before Wilson’s.

But three things made the Fourteen Points address enduringly relevant Firstly, Wilson’s oratory made an otherwise esoteric debate about international relations accessible to all. His speech was clear and brief, but laced with a moral surety that gave the remarks the tone of a homily. This meant the speech was swiftly transmitted around the world. German troops moving though Russia found multilingual versions of the Fourteen Points displayed in the streets just days after Wilson spoke. Copies littered the Western front and the Central Powers led by Germany were left in no doubt that the Fourteen Points would be the Allies’ peace terms.

The second characteristic was the idea for a League of Nations. Few disputed the virtuousness of the liberal internationalist ideals reiterated in Wilson’s speech, but intellectuals and politicians had long doubted that such ideals could be implemented on the scale required. The League was Wilson’s solution to this problem. He recognised the impending Allied victory was likely to be the only moment in which the nations of the world could be convinced to engage in such a grand experiment

Wilson’s model of the League, hypothetic-ally, actualised all the principles for peace: states would be equally represented, their exchanges and decisions conducted openly and recorded, and the League would be empowered to mediate disputes and set norms according to the international laws created by member states and, if necessary, enforced by their collective power.

History shows the League would fail short of its grand purpose, but in 1918 the boldness, the scale, and the idealism of the League idea attracted the attention and widespread support of a world demoralised by war and searching for hope. The League rounded out the vision articulated in the Fourteen Points address and gave it a path to practical realisation. The third aspect that made the Fourteen Points seminal was that it came from the United States of America. The only other Allied power strong enough to have credibly articulated such a far-reaching vision for peace was Britain. But it’s doubtful Britain could have led the peace process as effectively as the US; certainly the Central Powers themselves believed a US-led process would give them the most favourable terms. Doubtless owing to this belief in October 1918 when Germany’s Imperial Chancellor formerly notified the Allies of Germany’s desire to discuss peace he contacted Wilson’s administration first and accepted the Fourteen Points as the basis for negotiations.

America’s sponsorship of the post-war peace signalled to the world that America’s role in international relations had changed and the old empires now faced a young republic eager to change the global order. While Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding, would lead America into a temporary isolationism, Wilson had effectively laid down the philosophy that would guide America’s global leadership for the century to come.

People have a disposition to honour events of great drama - as with other recent centenaries such as Gallipoli, the October Revolution and the Battle of Beersheba. The Fourteen Points address was not as visceral as these events; it was simply one man speaking for 10 minutes. Yet it was an event loaded with portent which demands recollection and reflection.

The Fourteen Points address was the apogee of Enlightenment values that came to underscore how relationships between nations would be conducted through the 20th century and beyond. It was the moment of intellectual conception for the international system as we know it today because Wilson’s designs would be the blueprint upon which peace would be built after the Second World War.

The principles outlined by the president a century ago were not discredited by the unsustainable Treaty of Versailles; nor the impotence of the League; not even by the cataclysm of a second great war. The vision of peace at the heart of the Fourteen Points address was steeped in idealism. The people charged with the implementation of this peace were always going to fall short, not because the principles were flawed but because the drafters of Versailles, the delegates to the League, and the world leaders above them were all dogged by the same vices and frailties that are part of the human condition.

The failure to achieve the peace envisioned a century ago should not cause cynicism towards bold idealism, it should simply be a reminder that improving the state of the world is a gruelling, intergenerational task.

The Fourteen Points is also a reminder that international leadership is predicated on more than just wealth and might America’ leadership over the past century has been built on the internationalist philosophy first articulated by Wilson. Revisionist powers such as China will hopefully realise that if they are to successfully rearrange the global order they must articulate their own internationalist philosophy and become trustees of a system that works for all nations, not just their own.

We would do well to recall that the norms and laws that guide international relations today were envisioned and put into practice by an initially small number of Allied statesmen who could have very easily let the world default to the status quo prior to the war, one where the fate of entire populations was unilaterally determined by the most wealthy or most brutal powers. Instead, they embraced a vision that was ambitious, hopeful, and unlike anything that had been attempted before.

Today as nations grapple with challenges such as renewed nuclear proliferation, sectarian violence and introspective nationalism we should remember that the relative peace we enjoy was built on bold visions such as the Fourteen Points. The vision of the Fourteen Points has served for a century, but maintaining the peace we have, and overcoming today’s challenges, requires a continuously crafted vision for a better world.

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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How US President Woodrow Wilson ushered in a hundred years of hope

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