Arshintseva O.A. History, Political Values and US Foreign Policy: Peacemaking Diplomacy of President W. Wilson, 1918

Аршинцева О.А. История, политические ценности и внешняя политика США: миротворческая дипломатия президента В. Вильсона в 1918 г.

Сведения об авторе. Аршинцева Ольга Алексеевна, кандидат исторических наук, доцент кафедры всеобщей истории и международных отношений Алтайского государственного университета. Круг научных интересов: мировая политика, история международных отношений и внешней политики США и Великобритании, политические идеологии и международный имидж страны, процесс формирования внешнеполитического курса.

Abstract. The complex relationship between the world of ideas, national identity, basic political values and the worlds of policy and diplomacy has been the subject of much debate in recent years. In the article the author considers the ideological basis of Woodrow Wilson’s peaceful diplomacy. The case of President Wilson provides an opportunity to explore an interaction between the national political values and the U.S. foreign policy. The famous “14th points of President Wilson” — the peaceful settlement program of 1918 — expressed the US’ claims to the leadership of the free world. The author attempts to find out the relationship of Wilsonianism and American exceptionalism based on presume that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration.


History, Political Values and US’ Foreign Policy: Peacemaking Diplomacy of President W. Wilson, 1918

History indelibly influences foreign policy. Consciously or unconsciously, government officials rely on their understanding of the past in seeking to address what is happening today; they seek to render new and complex issues more legible by drawing insights from what has come before Nor is this necessarily a bad thing, because historical knowledge—when used properly—can have a highly constructive influence on policy. History can help American officials understand the countries and peoples with which they interact; it can provide perspective and analytical leverage on key problems; it can give statesmen access to the wisdom that their predecessors gained at considerable expense. One cannot make policy solely on the basis of historical knowledge, of course, but only a fool would ignore what history has to offer [1].
To understand the roots of history-policy relationship American researchers J. Suri and H. Brands formulate several basic propositions and the most importing of these are that (1) history is essential to understanding others and understanding ourselves, (2) history can be a source of strategic perspective and patience. In particular, history can help us better understand the nature of the people and societies with which we interact; it can also help us understand our own tendencies, and our own role in the world. If history can thus be indispensable to understanding others, it can be equally essential to understanding ourselves. As Walter R. Mead has written, grappling with the history of U.S. foreign policy can provide greater awareness of the enduring ideas and impulses — from Wilsonianism to the Jacksonian tradition—that have long shaped America’s interaction with the world, and that continue to inform American actions today [2].
It can make the scholars more aware of the critical role that the United States has played for the past several decades in building and upholding a liberal world order, and of the profound consequences that a departure from that traditional role might thus entail.
So, history, with its insights, analogies, and narratives, is central to the ways in which the United States interacts with the world. The researchers don’t doubt that the image the United States holds of itself must affect its role in foreign affairs. The actual issue is to investigate the sources of image formation and the ways to promote this image abroad. The United States is probably the only major country in the world in which it is taken quite as a matter of course that people will talk seriously about the relation of the nation’s values to its foreign policy.
Historically, Woodrow Wilson was the first American President to promote American world-wide leadership based on the traditional national values. After the War for Independence the national identity had been formulated in terms of political values as a concept of American exceptionalism. Stephen M. Walt, Harvard’ professor of international relations, points out that it’s not the same as saying the United States is “different” from other countries. It doesn’t just mean that the U.S. is “unique.” Countries, like people, are all different and unique, even if many share some underlying characteristics. Exceptionalism requires something far more: a belief that the U.S. follows a path of history different from the laws or norms that govern other countries. That’s the essence of American exceptionalism: The U.S. is not just a bigger and more powerful country — but an exception [3].
Over the XIX century of independent existence of their country, prominent Americans had described the United States as an “empire of liberty,” a “shining city on a hill,” the “last best hope of Earth,” the “leader of the free world,” and the “indispensable nation”. Most statements of “American exceptionalism” presumed that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. Wilson shared this conscientious and was confident that the United States was both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.
To the beginning of the World War I there was strong isolationist tradition that shaped US foreign policy, therefore at the start of the war in Europe in 1914, the American government attempts to remain neutral in thought as well as action. In 1917-1918 Wilson broke the isolationist tradition and at the same time advocated the spread of American values, further emphasizing the importance of international cooperation. “What kind of the world order does the United States want?” — there was the key question to be answered by the peaceful settlement program of President Woodrow Wilson to the end of World War I. For the first time he had attempted to answer a year earlier. In President’s address to Congress in 1917 Wilson tried to outline America’s reasons for entering the First World War, what actions would be necessary and the motives for which the nation would fight. He tried to appeal to the Congresses sense of moral reason and to offer the nation the most acceptable ones.
In January 1918, Wilson put forward his famous Fourteen Points to achieve world peace in a speech on War Aims and Peace Terms. These points were in line with Wilson’s ideology on foreign policy. Addressing the public in his own country and abroad he said: “I believe that the people of the United States would wish me to respond, with utter simplicity and frankness. We entered this war because violations of right had occurred which touched us to the quick and made the life of our own people impossible unless they were corrected and the world secure once for all against their recurrence. What we demand in this war, therefore, is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression” [4].
The President urged the war was about liberty and democracy, he vowed it would be the last international war. Firstly Wilson claimed that the war was to “make the world safe for democracy.” In his declaration of war speech Wilson declared that this conflict between Germany might be the last straw for not only Western diplomacy but for all of Western civilization, if we did not act. However if Americans were willing to throw their weight into the war effort then they might be able to spread the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Secondly Wilson urged this war to be our final international conflict, in fact the final international conflict. He hoped that no longer would countries reach for their swords when they were out of words he declared that this was “the war to end all wars” and that Americans were to lead this great crusade of peace. Finally Wilson set up the Committee of Public Information, the first United States executively established institution for the sole purpose of distributing propaganda. Wilson had wonderful ideas that would justify Americans as peacemakers and harbingers of democratic principles to free the oppressed.
President Wilson faced daunting challenges when negotiating at the Paris peace conference. Prior to America’s entry in the war, Wilson had called for a generous “peace without victory.” He hoped the victors would not punish the losers harshly. But leaders in Paris representing France, Britain and Italy demanded the spoils of victory. Their tough position was not surprising. European soldiers and sailors had been in the war much longer than U.S. forces and experienced much greater losses. Europe’s negotiators wanted territorial control, substantial monetary compensation, and acceptance of “war guilt clause” by Germany. Wilson reluctantly agreed to many of the allies’ terms. He placed hope for a better future in the work of a new organization, the League of Nations but failed to secure U.S. membership in the League of Nations. Wilson’s Democratic Party suffers lost in the November 1918 congressional elections and Wilson failed to get congressional approval of the final peace treaty or congressional support for a proposed League of Nations to prevent future wars. Was it Wilson’ personal responsibility or more deeply causes took place? Since he arrived at the peace talks with worldwide popularity, did Wilson fail to wield his influence effectively? Or, were the obstacles so daunting that just about any American president would find it nearly impossible to shape a long-lasting peace? Was it true that Europeans did not accept the Wilson’ proposals because they did not share American political values? Or they did not agree with US’ domination? These and other questions have not receive a final answer. The effectiveness of Wilson’ peacemaking policy remains a controversial problem as well as Wilsonian tradition a whole.
Henry Kissinger, the most famous of Wilson’s critics, argues that in US foreign policy along with the realistic school there was also an alternative American tradition, one rooted in the New World idealism of the founding fathers. This alternative found its modern embodiment in Woodrow Wilson, who after World War I declared that America was under a moral imperative to encourage self-determination and democracy for all peoples. In Kissinger’s vocabulary, Wilsonianism is the highest term of disapprobation, and his unqualified disdain for this doctrine resonates in the adjectives he applies to it: “messianic,” “missionary,” even “optimistic.” Wilsonian idealism might be valid if American values were universal, but to Kissinger, universal values are themselves a chimera. In practice, American values, democracy included, have proved irrelevant in many countries that have a history and culture of their own, and trying to impose them in order to cure ancient ills generally introduces far more destructive contemporary ills. Worse, moral imperatives inject a self-righteous humbug into international relations. In Wilsonian logic, enemies are not simply people defending their own national interest; they are immoral, and therefore fit to be destroyed unconditionally. What begins as morality can thus end in warmongering and imperialism by another name [5, p. 29-56].
Another critic, R. Toplin puts the blame to Wilson’s diplomatic failures: he was ineffective in Paris in large part because he insisted on dominating U.S. negotiations. He aimed to wield extensive personal control over deliberations. Key European leaders found Wilson haughty, self-righteous, and egotistical. Eventually they out-maneuvered the over-burdened American president [6].
Trygve Throntveit in his “Power without Victory” (2017) does not agree with such estimates. He makes the case that Wilson was not a “Wilsonian,” as that term has come to be understood, but a principled pragmatist in the tradition of William James. He did not seek to stamp American-style democracy on other peoples, but to enable the gradual development of a genuinely global system of governance that would maintain justice and facilitate peaceful change—a goal that, contrary to historical tradition, the American people embraced [7].
The recent discussions on Wilsonianism evidence of the broad prospects to study the complex relationship between the world of ideas and the worlds of policy and diplomacy.


1. Brands H., Suri J. History and Foreign Policy: Making the Relationship Work. URL:
2. Mead W.R. Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. N.Y., 2001.
3. Walt St.M. The Myth of American Exceptionalism. URL:
4. President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Delivered in Joint Session, Jan. 8, 1918. URL:
5. Kissinger H. Diplomacy. N.Y., 1994.
6. Toplin R. 100 Years Ago Woodrow Wilson Made Several Disastrous Decisions. URL:
7. Trontveit Th. Power without Victory. Woodrow Wilson and the American Internationalist Experiment. Chicago, 2017.