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We'd Be Better Off If Our Foreign Policy Was Less Woodrow Wilson and More Colonel House

At a time when leaders in both major parties claim their foreign policy is Wilsonian, it is opportune to look closely at the tensions between Woodrow Wilson, with his yearning to convert the world to American ideals, and the more pragmatic approach of his close friend and collaborator, Colonel House.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been a revival in the United States of the strategy known as “Wilsonian” — the idea, that is, that it is the destiny and the duty of the United States to use its great power to spread American ideas of democracy and also the American version of capitalism throughout the world.

The foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration is unmistakably Wilsonian in so far as it aspires to spread democracy and capitalism to the Middle East and elsewhere. But the Clinton administration, too, saw itself as Wilsonian. In its early months, President Clinton himself and three leading members of his foreign policy team, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Tony Lake and United Nations Ambassador Madeleine Albright, who later succeeded Christopher at the State Department, all made speeches explicitly proclaiming their loyalty to a Wilsonian commitment to spreading democracy to as much of the world as possible.

Woodrow Wilson had little knowledge or interest in foreign policy when he was elected president. His foreign policy was largely a product of his close friendship and working partnership with Colonel Edward House. Until Wilson, ill, influenced by his second wife’s suspicion of House, and frustrated by his inability to control the Paris peace conference, broke with his friend in the spring of 1919, House was as close a collaborator as any president ever had. Wilson said of him “his thoughts and mine are one.”

Although historians have portrayed him as little more than a crony, House’s immense contribution to Wilson’s foreign policy can be documented.

Before the European war broke out in 1914, he visited Europe and saw both the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, and the Kaiser in a last minute attempt to stop the war.

After war started, he visited Europe repeatedly to try to stop the fighting and bring about a negotiated peace. He helped to draft Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points and played a key role in writing the covenant of the League of Nations. He helped Wilson pull off a brilliant diplomatic stroke by getting the Germans to surrender on the basis of the Fourteen Points. Only at the Paris peace conference, where he was Wilson’s chief assistant delegate, was he unsuccessful, because Wilson thought he was conceding too much to the European powers.

House has had a lasting influence on the style of American diplomacy. He was the first of those direct personal presidential emissaries, like Harry Hopkins and Henry Kisssinger, who have often had more influence than secretaries of state. When he put together the Inquiry, a group of scholars to advise Wilson on America’s war aims, he inaugurated the tradition of involving experts from the great graduate schools to advise presidents, again at the expense of the Department of State.

More relevant to the problems of shaping foreign policy today is the disagreement between Wilson and House that led to their eventual falling out. Wilson was an idealist, a superb orator, and a man who believed it was enough for him to tell the world what he believed ought to be done, and the world, bludgeoned into agreement by his moral and rhetorical force, would consent.

House, gray eminence and kingmaker behind four Democratic governors of Texas, liked to sit down with men across the table, to understand what they wanted, and to see how far their interests could be made to coincide with those of the United States and with the vision he largely shared with his president. He was, in short — not in the technical sense in which the word is used in academic international relations, but in the common usage — a realist.

In part, this was a matter of temperament. If Wilson was a child of Mary, House, quiet and unassertive, was a child of Martha. There was also the difference between the academic who became president almost before he had gone into politics, and the man who had spent years in the gritty exchanges of Texas politics, then many months getting to know the realities and the personalities of European politics, and equipped himself with a superb private intelligence network.

House understood by 1914 that murderous forces, especially German militarism, were marching the civilized world toward disaster. He saw that the United States could not avoid involvement in this looming tragedy. Like his friend Wilson, he passionately wanted the United States to be the greatest power of the twentieth century, through the weight not only of economic and military power but also of moral and ideological influence.

The difference was that Wilson saw politics not as a map, with stubborn, irremovable features — rivers and mountain ranges to be crossed — but as a theorem inscribed with the luminous simplicity of his own moral purity on a sheet of blank paper. House saw political leadership as a matter of dealing with people as they were, warts and all.

Wilson hated the old diplomacy, whereby statesmen would bargain away whole provinces with no regard to the wishes of their people. Yet he found himself in Paris doing just that. Just one example was the German-speaking lands in the Alps given to Italy. House shared Wilson’s commitment to the American ideal that governments must have the consent of the governed. But he also understood that American ideals must survive the realities of international diplomacy, and survive the unfriendly scrutiny of a Senate controlled by Henry Cabot Lodge.

At a time when an American administration is inspired with a Wilsonian vision of a world transformed by American democracy, it is time, I believe, to reexamine the debate at the heart of the Wilson Administration’s foreign policy between Wilson himself, with his faith in the transforming power of American ideals, expressed in blazing, biblical rhetoric, and the more patient, realistic skills of Colonel House, with his nose for politics, whether in Europe or in Washington, as the art of the possible.

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