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Neil Cameron
Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

Presidents, sacred texts, and their helpful scribes

Le bon Dieu n’en avait que dix!

George Clemenceau (1841-1929), ‘Le Tigre’, Premier of France 1917-1920, on Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, proclaimed on

January 8, 1918.


Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy speech of December 18 contained some of his usual rhetoric, but was prosaic and conventional compared to his last standards. The speech was in a long tradition. American Presidents, far more than leaders of other countries, have repeatedly been fond of producing grand public declarations of principles in foreign affairs. The most famous, or notorious, appeared exactly a century ago: Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. They somewhat resembled, as Clemenceau sourly observed, God’s Laws brought down from the mountaintop to instruct the peoples of the world, but with more ambiguous impact.

They did guarantee some permanent fascination with Wilson himself. Other such pronouncements, earlier or later, while also identified with the Presidents who made them, have usually been recognized as also revealing wider currents of ideas and the backstage advisers who helped form them: The Monroe Doctrine, for example, was in both theory and practice, more the achievement of John Quincy Adams and British Foreign Secretary George Canning than of President Monroe, and the recent one of George Bush was largely shaped by neoconservative policy wonks. But this backstage aspect has received less attention in the case of the Fourteen Points. Wilson was a PhD. in political science and prolific scholarly author, of books on government, the classic academic intellectual in public affairs. Nonetheless, his Points had been constructed with the aid of his own kind of brains trust, and reveal more about the American ‘progressive’ ideology of their time than of war and diplomacy in 1917-18. They have also cast long shadows in American dealings with the world ever since.

Wilson’s list included some straightforward war aims, like the restoration of occupied Belgium and war-ravaged northern France; these were similar to those outlined in a speech by David Lloyd George three days earlier. But long before the bitter quarrels of the 1919 Versailles negotiations, the abstract idealism of other Points was ill-received. The British, whose naval power was their great weapon, both defensive and offensive, were scarcely likely to embrace Point II’s ‘freedom of the seas’. Clemenceau was more contemptuous of the entire document, for limiting the harsh punishments he hoped to inflict on Germany, and to be fantasizing in proposing the settling of major international disputes through a new League of Nations.

At Versailles, Wilson had to give up almost everything else to get acceptance of the League, a story now long familiar in lively interpretations from Maynard Keynes to Margaret Macmillan. His failure was then compounded when he returned to the U.S., as Congress refused to ratify League membership. The last years of his life were grim, the Republicans winning the White House in 1920, his mind and body crippled by exhaustion and severe strokes. He died in 1924, only 67. There has long been a great deal of biographical study on the complex character of Wilson himself, often stressing his arrogant foolishness in refusing to work out a compromise with the powerful Republican Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge. Much of it used to be written in lamentation by very ‘idealist’ American liberal academics. There have also been many countering sceptical reviews of the Fourteen Points, by theorists of ‘realist’ foreign policy. Overall histories of the subject have had to incorporate both approaches. Walter Russell Mead has added two more, splitting the ‘idealist’ approach into a ‘legalist-internationalist’ wing and a more bellicose ‘collective security’ one, and adding as another alternative, a ‘populist-nationalist’ tradition, represented Presidentially by Andrew Jackson, and now by Donald Trump.

But these neat categorizations involve much labeling after the fact, and frequent inconsistencies. Wilson’s combination of Calvinist high-mindedness and progressive ideology was also married to deference to business interests, and frequent ruthless action both home and abroad. The Points also have to be understood in terms of the time they appeared. He announced them only two months after the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia’s departure from the War, like the collapsing Ottoman and Habsburg dynastic empires, with unknowable consequences for Allied victory prospects, or the very survival of European states. The Points were also necessarily vague about the future of ‘nationalities’, including the ‘people’ [singular![ of Austria-Hungary.

Moreover, in opposition to later arguments from the Germans that they had been willing to make peace on the basis of the Points, and had therefore been ‘betrayed’ at Versailles, they appeared before the Germans had imposed their own savage peace on Russia in March of 1918, and before Ludendorff launched a final offensive in the summer of 1918, which even Wilson himself admitted, cancelled promises of a peace ‘without annexations or indemnities’. Neither the cynical Lloyd George nor the vengeful Clemenceau, nor any other powerful force on the scene, had any workable restorative program of ‘realism’ to better repair European and world order.

The very mass democracy of which Wilson claimed to be the champion was not just a force against the elite secret diplomacy deplored in Point I, but also against the cool rationalism and occasional indifference to popular hopes possible for past aristocratic diplomats. Lloyd George, for example, was well aware that Germany had been Britain’s most important trading partner before the war, and wanted to see that commerce restored, but had to contend with a British public opinion at least temporarily almost as vengeful as that of France. Furthermore, the leaders of both old and newly-emerging democracies feared that Bolshevism could engulf the world in general, producing caution and timidity in postwar international military commitments. Factors like these have made it easy to mock the abstract impracticality of Wilson’s visions, but also undermine the notion that clear-eyed ‘realists’ could provide a more sure-footed approach to what was happening to the world in 1917-1919.

In compiling the Points, Wilson had drawn on the assistance of ‘The Inquiry, a study group of about 150 eminent advisers, mainly professors of philosophy, history, and international law, but directed by Wilson’s friend and influential adviser, ‘Colonel’ House [the title was ‘honorary’; House was a Texas businessman with broad business connections]. Twenty-one of its members went to France with Wilson as part of the larger American negotiating commission. It had considerable influence in its eventual recommendations, although Wilson broke sharply and permanently with House in the course of these. The whole group had a highly ‘progressive’ cast (an early research head was Walter Lippmann), although that could be said of a large swathe of American public opinion in 1900-1920. especially of Ivy league academia. It also reflected the American governmental fondness for attacking problems with batteries of experts, including in cases in which collective expertise was not necessarily of much help. This still applies, and Donald Trump seems to be assembling his own mixture of heterodox business and academic advisers, preparing a sort of nationalistic Black Mass to the legalist and internationalist strain running from Wilson to Obama. It may produce better results – slightly. Realities in the world often outrun even the ‘realists’, who may have their own kind of hubris.