Walter McDougall’s trenchant Liberty Forum essay on Saint Woodrow and the Great War is as much concerned with the present and future of American foreign policy or grand strategy as with the past.
The closing reference to Donald Trump warns the current administration and its supporters to sustain their focus on U.S. national interest as the central principle of foreign policy, in the face of Establishment temptations. America’s post-Cold War “crusade,” writes McDougall, may have “triggered a backlash” in the form of Trump’s nationalism, but he goes on to “predict that Trump will be no more willing or able than Barack Obama to break the spell” of internationalism and crusading moralism cast by Wilson a century ago. Having campaigned on an America First doctrine, Trump may well succumb to the recent historical cycle of messianic crusade followed by brief insularist backlash followed by an all-too-quick reversion to internationalism.
McDougall’s brutally candid commentary on Wilson and his persistent legacy is an extension of his impressive work of two decades ago, Promised Land, Crusader State, and his 2016 The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy. Each work builds a narrative of America’s foreign policy crusading and overextension so as to entreat our leaders to return to the true gospel of Americanism. That sound creed, built by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams, teaches that we should avoid foreign wars by minding our own business as much as possible: deploying our ships and troops only when undeniably necessary, and even then, with a minimum degree of entanglement or long-term commitment.
The historian’s frustration shows after decades of issuing such admonitions to little effect, or so he thinks. Speaking as a fellow admirer of George Washington and the Washingtonian grand strategy for America—one who also defends the principle of U.S. engagement and leadership in international affairs in the 20th and 21st centuries—for me the frustration is that McDougall has been all too effective. At least among academics, he has reinforced the long-predominant view that our Founding policy was one of independence from entanglements, leaning toward insularism, a stance said to be the near-opposite of the internationalism of America’s 20th century role as a global leader and order-builder.
I am grateful to Liberty Fund for convening this conversation and offering an opportunity to propose the following: An American statesman like Washington would be adhering to his principles if he adopted a more internationalist strategy in later, very different circumstances.
Let me first stipulate that a genuine admirer of Washington’s statesmanship, especially his Farewell Address of 1796, would agree with McDougall’s critique of the utopianism and hubris of President Wilson’s foreign policy decisions. I would even raise McDougall’s criticism a notch: that Wilson’s entire theory of U.S. politics and the presidency was so hubristic as to repudiate the Constitution and the political science upon which it rested. His doomed foreign policy was just one of the malignant legacies he bequeathed.
Two of the main pillars of American domestic and foreign policy are The Federalist and the Farewell Address, each dismissed or mangled by Wilson when he taught political science at Princeton and when he occupied the Oval Office. This fact, however, points to a complication for McDougall’s essay. He recalls that Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.) led the opposition to the utopianism of the Fourteen Points and League of Nations in the Senate, but omits that Lodge was an avowed American internationalist who also greatly admired these Founding texts.
It was not solely Teddy Roosevelt’s brand of realism-as-Darwinian-striving-for-American- greatness that urged U.S. entry into the Great War earlier than an originally resistant Wilson. There was also the sober argument that America’s interest was served by entering the global balance-of-power contest. Senator Lodge, who had edited a reprinting of The Federalist in 1888 on its centenary, argued that U.S. participation in the conflict on the right grounds would conform with original principles of American foreign policy: leaning forward in international affairs to counter a long-term danger to both our ideals and our security, as we had done with the Monroe Doctrine.
These kinds of brushstrokes complicate the portrait of America that McDougall wishes us to see. Indeed, they raise a question about the “Or” of his title: Can one so easily pivot from repudiating the madness of Saint Woodrow to emphatically condemning Americans’ going “over there”? More generally, does decrying Wilson necessarily entail rejecting the view that U.S. national interest in an era of ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, and cyber-attacks requires American efforts to shape an international order? If we deem that, in such circumstances, it is inadequate—or even harmful—to signal our preference to stay home, avoid entanglements, and act unilaterally only when provoked or directly threatened, are we therefore doomed to messianism and foreign quagmires? Is no reasonable middle ground possible?
Having stated my admiration for Washington and his Farewell Address, I should add a further disclaimer: I taught for two decades at the U.S. Air Force Academy. While a liberty-minded critic of American military adventurism might accept the legitimacy of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point—proposed by Washington and Adams, implemented by Jefferson—there might be doubts about an entire academy devoted to a globe-trotting service like the Air Force. Even the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis seems more traditionally Anglo-American and connected to both our commercial spirit and homeland defense. The Naval Academy was established in the 1840s as a delayed but perhaps inevitable reaction to the burning of the nation’s capital in 1814 by a British naval and marine force. That said, the Naval Academy arguably embodied a delayed implementation of the strategy of extended deterrence intimated by the Monroe Doctrine.
If that is so, here are more details that complicate McDougall’s narrative of a fairly simple Founding creed followed by a fall—or, to use his preferred metaphor, followed by a slide into various heresies. His essay cites John Quincy Adams from 1821 warning America not to go abroad to slay ideological dragons. Similarly, in Promised Land, Crusader State he insisted that our navy’s global power-projection under many 19th century Presidents was a legitimate extrapolation of the Monroe Doctrine (also the work of Quincy Adams) because it still was unilateralist and non-entangling.
That characterization might be somewhat strained, but even more strained would be a denial that, as the centuries passed, America’s increasing international engagement was as much an extension of this kind of navalism, under new technological circumstances, as it was the product of heresies. If America had to adopt new, globally available technologies that more tightly connected us to other states and regions (such as an air force and a nuclear triad), and if these in turn required new strategies for permanent international engagement with political and military alliances, then what is imprudent about adapting enduring principles to new realities?
Indeed, one could turn McDougall’s exercise in virtual history against his madness-and- internationalism thesis by imagining an alternate history in which, from 1898 to 1941, America avoided oscillation between extremes—semi-imperial war and neocolonial occupation under Teddy Roosevelt, then utopian crusading for liberal perpetual peace, finally to isolationist repudiation of any substantial American action in international affairs.
Two Progressive and populist Presidents had cast off the moderate, constitutionalist conception of the presidency as an office meant to partner with the Senate in providing stability and sobriety in American foreign policy. After those deviations, the reaction of insularism in the 1920s and 1930s was more than understandable.
Nonetheless the root cause of these larger problems was not an American awareness that a world made smaller by technology, coupled with a political-economic order that had propelled us to undeniable great-power status, required new thinking about how to be true to America’s first principles. The real cause was TR’s fusion of populism and Progressivism, which in turn suited the anti-constitutionalist political science that Professor Wilson had developed over the course of decades.
It was Wilson’s anti-constitutionalist repudiation of institutions like the Senate’s treaty power— the power that ultimately blocked his new conception of the presidency as prophetic leader of the democratic masses—as much as his liberal-international utopianism that caused the disasters of 1918 and 1919. Wilson’s refusal to compromise with the Senate, and his barnstorming campaign to rally popular opinion against the Senate’s concerns with the Versailles Treaty, precipitated his physical collapse. Hence it was not a prudent American internationalism, but dogmatism, that led to the botched international order of the 1920s and beyond.
Imagine if a constitutionalist such as Lodge had been President when the Great War erupted in Europe. If we clear away the fog of Wilson’s anti-constitutionalist madness, would McDougall still suggest that any kind of deep American intervention in the European war, with ground troops, would have yielded the same disastrous results as the Wilson chaos, which included his series of diplomatic and domestic errors?
Imagine further: Is McDougall suggesting that Wilson’s utopian bungling, and its perverse effect of provoking the kinds of international acrimonies it ostensibly was designed to remove, caused the rise of Marxist revolutionary actors and Nietzschean ideology in Europe’s political landscape? Even if American had stayed true to its constitutionalist, politically moderating philosophy under a President Lodge rather than indulging the new religion of democratic self-worship and its tendency toward extreme policies, how can we say that the poisoned fruits of radical modern philosophies would not have arisen in 20th century Europe?
If it is plausible (as surely it is) to imagine rival extremisms of Marxism and Nietzschean fascism arising in Europe regardless of U.S. intervention against the Kaiser in the Great War, what would a constitutionalist American President have done in such a world?
Here we can return to historical fact. Just as the muscular internationalist Lodge professed admiration for Founding texts, so too did President Eisenhower recommend American internationalism in his 1961 farewell address—whose drafting was grounded in advice to his staff that preparations for a parting statement begin by reviewing Washington’s Farewell Address.
Were Lodge and Eisenhower lousy readers of Washington? If we take from the 1961 address only Ike’s famous warning against a military industrial complex, we do hear an echo of the insularist reading of the 1796 Address. But since that warning occurs right after a forthright defense of a permanent military-industrial complex and American international leadership in military and political alliances, then we have a challenge on our hands. We find that what Eisenhower was actually doing was warning his countrymen and women to be vigilant to avoid extremes; he was not, in other words, spurning these new strategies.
Again, it is pertinent to ask: Did Lodge and Eisenhower properly apply Washington’s parting maxims to new circumstances? They arguably were true to Washington if we read the entirety of the Farewell Address and thus avoid the oft-made error of confusing it with Jefferson’s rigid slogan from 1801 about avoiding entangling alliances. Washington was no such doctrinaire thinker. He recommended that we avoid permanent alliances, and any made from passion or domestic partisanship. He openly endorsed the need for temporary alliances, and his deeper concern lay with America’s political immaturity and relative weakness among the great powers.
Few analyses note Washington’s stout prediction that, if America stayed true to its complex, moderating constitutionalism, it would soon be “a great nation.” Thus his fundamental maxim was not about alliances or entanglements at all, but about staying true to America’s exceptional effort to blend the nation-state (with its immediate interests) with universal ideals. His bedrock maxim was that we should “choose peace or war as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”
Nor do many commentators note what comes at the close of the Address: the qualification Washington set on his advice about neutrality or avoiding foolish political commitments:
With me a predominant motive has been to endeavor to gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption to that degree of strength and consistency which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes.
A dominant America might subsequently decide that leading a global military and political alliance is necessary to our interest and security, as the emerging circumstances might demand, particularly if leadership affords us the freedom to strike that balance between interest and justice which we deem best.
America’s first grand strategy left room for adaption of the basic principle of balancing interest with justice, once America grew to greatness and once technology required greater commitments to international affairs so as to extend the range of our deterrence. This suggests not a sharp fall from Founding sobriety to heresy, but a more complicated picture that allows us to discern errors and utopianisms while still obliging us to adapt our original strategy to new and challenging circumstances.