‘No one likes armed missionaries’

Dennis Phillips, The University of Sydney

G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Tony Smith The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2009 (157 pp). ISBN 9-78069113-969-2 (hard cover) RRP $42.95.

George Friedman The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, Melbourne, Black Inc., 2009 (253 pp). ISBN 9-78186395-422-8 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Who could have predicted that eight years of George W. Bush’s hapless foreign policy would produce a crisis of confidence among liberal theorists? Put another way, did George W. Bush and his neoconservative brains trust so discredit Wilsonian liberal internationalism that there is nothing useful left in the grand old idealism for which America’s 28th president, Woodrow Wilson (1913–21), is justly famous?

Historians and political scientists still differ on whether Wilson’s extraordinary belief in a perfectible world represented a genuine progressive step in international relations or served merely as a cover for an American-style missionary imperialism. Idealists tend to find in ‘Wilsonian diplomacy’ the basic tenets of a workable, multilateral system for improving US foreign policy and international relations generally. But to most ‘realists’ Wilsonian idealism is a dangerous delusion prompted by the sublime arrogance of a man who often seemed to believe that God, and not the American people, had elected him president of the United States. The debate has contemporary relevance because many experts argue that President Barack Obama has yet to demonstrate exactly where on the ‘idealism – realism’ continuum his foreign policy orientation will finally settle (Ignatius 2009).

In The Crisis of American Foreign Policy, a compact (117 textual pages) collection of essays, G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Tony Smith and Anne-Marie Slaughter debate whether George W. Bush channelled Woodrow Wilson or buried him. As Ikenberry puts it in his introductory chapter, the consummate question is not whether Bush was a Wilsonian, but the viability of liberal internationalism in the 21st century (pp. 1, 5, 21). This is no mere intellectual debate given that Woodrow Wilson, despite his compromises at Versailles and the rejection of League of Nations membership by his own Senate, still ‘“towers above the landscape of modern American foreign policy like no other individual, the dominant personality, the seminal figure”’ (Herring quoted in Desch 2009, p. 96).

The problem is that Wilson’s place in the pantheon is more easily agreed than any consensus on what ‘Wilsonian diplomacy’ actually is. For most authorities, Wilsonian diplomacy boils down to three essential principles: (1) the promotion of international law and institutions as a prerequisite for justice and peace; (2) a belief in the transformative effect of democracy on international relations (that is, democracies make peace, not war), and (3) the assumption that free markets make free peoples.

To most ‘realists’ Wilsonian idealism is a dangerous delusion.

Noting that George W. Bush largely abandoned Cold War policies and ardently preached the gospel of democratic redemption and pre-emptive action, Stanley Hoffman coined a colourful phrase when he described the Bush Doctrine as ‘Wilsonianism in boots’ (Hoffman quoted in Herring 2008, p. 130). Was Bush foreign policy primarily about promoting democracy, or was it a ‘neoimperial effort to assert American global rule in which democracy promotion [was] … a sort of fig leaf to cover more hard-nosed geopolitical ambitions?’ To what extent is democracy promotion ‘the cutting edge of Wilsonianism’? And, most importantly, ‘does liberal internationalism have within it the principled and institutional safeguards to prevent liberal imperialism’? (Ikenberry et al. 2009, pp. 2–5).


In their contribution to The Crisis of American Foreign Policy, Thomas Knock and Anne-Marie Slaughter argue that Woodrow Wilson was more concerned about constructing the framework for a rule-based international order than he was spreading democracy worldwide. To Knock and Slaughter, the Bush Administration’s hostility to the United Nations and its go-it-alone philosophy illustrate how far Bush was from genuine Wilsonian diplomacy.

In the most interesting and provocative essay in this book, Tony Smith takes the opposite view, arguing that Bush’s neoconservatives were natural heirs to a global, evangelical Wilsonianism. Smith, a professor of political science at Tufts University and author of A Pact With the Devil: Washington’s Bid for World Supremacy and the Betrayal of the American Promise (2007), contends that Wilsonian liberal internationalism, with its call for ‘democratic governments, economic openness and multilateral institutions’, amounts to the very ‘essence of liberal progressive imperialism’. The original Wilsonian vision, he says, embellished by creation of the United Nations, Bretton Woods, advances in international human rights law, democratic peace theory, etcetera allowed ‘American nationalism [to] deck itself out in an internationalist attire’ (Ikenberry et al. 2009, pp. 66–73).

In summary, Smith warns that neoliberals (the centre left) are, in fact, well-meaning ‘Democratic liberal hegemonists’ who, whether they are willing to admit it or not, seek to ‘multilateralize American supremacy in world affairs’. Their ultimate goal is little different from that of George W. Bush, except in so far as they seek to achieve it through multilateral action that Bush and his neoconservative mates deeply distrusted. To Smith, the real difference between the neoliberals and the neoconservatives is ‘one of tactics and not strategy’. Liberal internationalists cannot escape facing the fact that they still embrace a ‘hegemonic concept’, even though it is aimed at replacing the more open and frank imperialist unilateralism of the Bush years (pp. 76, 84–86).

Tony Smith’s is the most interesting and provocative essay in this book.

It falls primarily to Anne-Marie Slaughter to refute Tony Smith’s argument and sustain the integrity of what she identifies as Wilson’s vision: ‘a world made safe for democracy, prosperity, knowledge, beauty, and human flourishing’ (p. 116). Slaughter brings an impressive reputation to this task. Until early this year she was Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and is now Director of Policy Planning at the State Department.

Slaughter begins by charging Smith with gross misrepresentation. She says that by portraying neoliberalism as a ‘parallel to neoconservatism’ and then conflating it with military adventurism, Smith’s version of neoliberalism constitutes ‘an artificial and often polemical construct’. She goes on to argue that there is a huge difference between ‘spreading democracy’ and supporting democratic institutions ‘in countries determining their own political future’ (pp. 90, 97, 104).

To Slaughter and Thomas Knock (professor of history, Southern Methodist University), the essence of Wilsonianism was not ‘exporting democracy’ but encouraging multilateralism and the construction of robust international institutions devoted to promoting the rule of law. Slaughter agrees with historians who argue that Woodrow Wilson was chastened by his confused and unsuccessful early military intervention in Mexico’s civil war (1910–20). He allegedly emerged from that experience as a determined anti-interventionist who subsequently emphasised self-determination and autonomous development for all nations. According to Slaughter, when Wilson said, ‘the world must be made safe for democracy’, what he meant was that democracy must be defended, not imposed (pp. 91–94).

It is worth noting parenthetically that others strongly disagree with the notion that Wilson emerged from the Mexican imbroglio as a consistent devotee of national self-determination. George Herring and Michael Desch challenge this conclusion, pointing out that ‘Wilson continued to use force unilaterally in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Mexico’ (Desch 2009, p. 92).

Slaughter argues that, properly understood, 21st century Wilsonianism definitely does not ‘wear boots’, at least not in the traditional armed, hard power sense. She defends her early support of the 2003 Iraq War by emphasing Saddam Hussein’s ‘horrific human rights violations …’ (Ikenberry et al. 2009, p. 109). Desch notes wryly that, when the weapons of mass destruction argument collapsed, the idea of the Iraq War as a humanitarian exercise produced a ‘… flock of liberal hawks who roosted with the Bush administration on the pro-war perch’ (Desch 2009, p. 94).

Slaughter distinguishes legitimate international leadership from global hegemony.

For Slaughter, modern Wilsonianism involves (1) encouraging, but not imposing, robust and meaningful democratic institutions; (2) a willingness on the part of the United States to reaffirm its treaty obligations and eschew unilateralist and exceptionalist measures and excuses; (3) recognition that any nation sacrifices its legitimacy when it ‘so egregiously violates fundamental human rights as to amount to genocide or crimes against humanity’, and (4) any decision to resort to humanitarian military intervention ‘must be made collectively rather than individually’. Multilateral processes, she admits, can be ‘messy, frustrating, and political’, but they also happen to be ‘indispensable’ and must include a co-operative United States (Ikenberry et al. 2009, pp. 110–111).


No matter how extensively experts argue the meaning and intent of Woodrow Wilson’s attitude toward democracy, the larger question of whether, in the 21st century, the United States can avoid the slippery hegemonic slope that Smith describes remains unanswered. Without imperial prejudice, can the US still take the lead in ‘forging a world of liberty under law’ that Ikenberry and Slaughter also urged a few years ago in the final report of the ‘Princeton Project on National Security’? (Ikenberry et al. 2009, pp. 61–63, 85; Ikenberry & Slaughter 2006).

Slaughter is eager to distinguish legitimate international leadership from global hegemony. She points out that a century ago Woodrow Wilson ‘lived in a world of states’ right, not individual rights’. In Wilson’s day an irresponsible government ‘could wreak such horrors on its own people’ that the concept of unchecked state sovereignty ‘could become a travesty’ (Ikenberry et al. 2009, pp. 105–106). Fortunately, the world, or at least some of it, has moved on since then. There is a popular and well-supported argument that, thanks to the evolution of international law and the progressive development of human rights legislation, we have progressed from perceiving state sovereignty in terms of unchallengeable control to a more extensive view of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’.

In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, co-chaired by Australia’s Gareth Evans, published The Responsibility to Protect, arguing that, while non-intervention should remain the norm, there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ where humanitarian armed intervention is both just and necessary. Recently, Evans has developed this argument more fully in his The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (2009).

As noble and logical as it is, the ‘responsibility to protect’ has a long way to go before it gains universal currency. In the toughest cases (most recently, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, among others), the issue at stake is not merely ‘humanitarian intervention’ but rather ‘humanitarian military intervention’. Robespierre observed long ago that ‘no one likes armed missionaries’ (Lévy & Lieven 2006). International law professors Jules Lobel and Michael Ratner remind us that the United Nations charter ‘clearly prohibits nations from attacking other states for claimed violations of human rights’ (2000, p. 1). The charter authorises the Security Council to use force to counter threats to international peace, and some humanitarian considerations have been included in this category, but ‘only with the explicit authorization of the Security Council’ (2000, p. 1).

The ‘responsibility to protect’ has a long way to go before it gains universal currency.

One very good reason for this is that ‘the history of humanitarian military intervention is replete with examples of powerful states … invoking the doctrine to conceal their own geopolitical interests’ (Lobel & Ratner 2000, p. 1). Without resorting to an extensive case-by-case study, it is clear that the American record in this regard is highly selective. In recent years the US Government has been much more concerned over human rights abuses in Kosovo and Iraq, than it has been in Rwanda, Guatemala, East Timor or Darfur.

Despite America’s obvious self-interested selectivity, Bernard-Henri Lévy articulates a widely shared concern when he says, ‘I hate the idea that the right of people to be their own masters should imply the right of the states to be the masters of their people’ (Lévy & Lieven 2006). If humanitarian intervention must await the arrival of perfect consistency and disinterest in United States (or any other nation’s) foreign policy then we can resign ourselves to a future replete with ‘mass atrocity crimes’.

In a preliminary and partial answer to the problem of when and how to intervene, Lobel and Ratner argue that reform must begin at home. They recommend that the United States (1) not employ military force for ‘alleged humanitarian reasons without the explicit approval of the Security Council’; (2) ends military support to ‘friendly’ nations guilty of serious human rights violations, and (3) rather than reach for unilateralist alternatives, ‘strengthen[s] its own participation in international human rights agreements’ by accepting the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, removing caveats on international agreements that make them non-enforceable under US law, and by generally being less ‘selective’ in identifying nations that are major human rights abusers.


When contemplating the future of US foreign policy and global events, there is only a tenuous connection between The Crisis in American Foreign Policy and George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years. Implicit in the liberal internationalist debate over the contemporary crisis in American foreign policy is the assumption that the United States will remain an influential power, perhaps the most influential power, for decades to come. If American empire is on the wane, then the prospect of future, robust US interventions worldwide diminishes greatly. If, on the other hand, American empire is still in its infancy, the debate articulated in The Crisis in American Foreign Policy is not only highly relevant but will remain so for the foreseeable future. George Friedman, in what can only be described as a bold and audacious book, has no problem taking sides in the great ‘decline’ debate. For Friedman, the ‘American Century’ (the 20th) is mere prelude to the next 100 years, during which the United States will remain the world’s dominant power.

George Friedman has no problem taking sides in the great ‘decline’ debate.

George Friedman is the founder and CEO of Stratfor, a private intelligence agency founded in 1996 and based in Austin, Texas. In The Next 100 Years, Friedman purports to apply a disinterested ‘geopolitical perspective’ (p. 166) to his grab bag of predictions. Unfortunately, he never explains exactly what principles of ‘geopolitics’ he has in mind. Explaining his methodology with words such as, ‘I began with the permanent: the persistence of the human condition, suspended between heaven and hell’ (p. 251) doesn’t really help us all that much. But Friedman is quite clear on one point, ‘the history of the United States will be the history of the twenty-first century’ (p. 13). No concern over American decline here. For Friedman, not only does the contemporary world ‘pivot around the United States’, the major events of the 21st century will also pivot around the United States (pp. 4–5, 13).

Keeping in mind Friedman’s argument that ‘when it comes to [predicting] the future, the only thing one can be sure of is that common sense will be wrong’ (pp. 3, 249), consider the following ‘geopolitical’ analysis: (1) within the next decade the United States will face a new Cold War with Russia, but fear not, Russia will lose that one too; (2) China and India have so many problems, both external and internal, that they will never amount to much in the 21st century; (3) by the middle of this century, rivalries emanating from the rise of Japan, Turkey and Poland will lead to the next world war; (4) the global population explosion that currently worries so many people will be reversed (and, as a result, global warming and climate change get one dismissive mention (p. 252) in this entire book); (5) the United States will enjoy a ‘jackpot period’ or ‘golden moment’ between about 2050 and 2070; (6) the United States will then collide with a resurgent Mexico in a ‘struggle for the global heartland’ (p. 223). All of this and more are foreshadowed in the first ten pages of Friedman’s book and most of the following twelve chapters develop these major themes.

I was attracted to Friedman’s book when I heard him interviewed on Australian radio. The book itself is a disappointment. For starters, it is neither documented nor indexed. Friedman would undoubtedly argue that it is impossible to footnote the future, but there are many statements in this book that are not futuristic and would benefit from careful documentation. The Next 100 Years is basically a book about war (‘you really can’t get a sense of the twenty-first century until you’ve described war’, p. 193). Five of the thirteen chapters have the word ‘war’ in their title and much of the rest of the book also centres on war, including the technology of war, especially space-based warfare. George Friedman is also the author of at least three other books devoted to war. I was left with the uneasy feeling that The Next 100 Years tells us at least as much about the contemporary interests of George Friedman and ‘Stratfor’ as it does about the United States and the world in the 21st century.


Desch, M.C. 2009, ‘Woodrow Wilson’s war’, The National Interest, no. 99, pp. 87–96.

Evans, G. 2009, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All, Brookings Institution Press, Washington D.C.

Herring, G.C. 2008, From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations Since 1776, Oxford University Press, New York.

Ignatius, D. 2009, ‘In strategic evolution, Obama’s missing link is a Kissinger’, The Australian, 8 October, p. 8.

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001, The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty [Online], Available: http://www.iciss.ca/report2-en.asp [2009, Sep 21].

Lieven, A. 2006, ‘Wolfish Wilsonians: Existential dilemmas of the liberal internationalists’, Orbis, vol. 50, no. 2, 243–257.

Lévy, B.-H. & Lieven, A. 2006, ‘Arguing the world’, The American Prospect, April 3 [Online], Available: http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=arguing_the_world [2009, Sep 26].

Lobel, J. & Ratner, M. 2000, ‘Humanitarian military intervention’, Foreign Policy In Focus, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 1–3 [Online], Available: http://www.fpif.org/pdf/vol5/01ifhum.pdf [2009, Sep 19].

Smith, T. 2007, A Pact With the Devil: Washington’s Bid for World Supremacy and the Betrayal of the American Promise, Routledge, London & New York.

Dennis Phillips was born in Colorado and grew up in Texas. He is a dual Australia/US citizen and has lived in Australia for 37 years. Previously a lecturer in US politics and history at Macquarie University, he currently teaches the US Foreign Policy unit at the US Studies Centre, Sydney University.