- Trygve ThrontveitTrygve ThrontveitDepartment of History, Harvard University
An ungainly word, it has proven tenacious. Since the early Cold War, “Wilsonianism” has been employed by historians and analysts of US foreign policy to denote two historically related but ideologically and operationally distinct approaches to world politics. One is the foreign policy of the term’s eponym, President Woodrow Wilson, during and after World War I—in particular his efforts to engage the United States and other powerful nations in the cooperative maintenance of order and peace through a League of Nations. The other is the tendency of later administrations and political elites to deem an assertive, interventionist, and frequently unilateralist foreign policy necessary to advance national interests and preserve domestic institutions. Both versions of Wilsonianism have exerted massive impacts on US and international politics and culture. Yet both remain difficult to assess or even define. As historical phenomena they are frequently conflated; as philosophical labels they are ideologically freighted. Perhaps the only consensus is that the term implies the US government’s active rather than passive role in the international order.
It is nevertheless important to distinguish Wilson’s “Wilsonianism” from certain doctrines and practices later attributed to him or traced to his influence. The major reasons are two. First, misconceptions surrounding the aims and outcomes of Wilson’s international policies continue to distort historical interpretation in multiple fields, including American political, cultural, and diplomatic history and the history of international relations. Second, these distortions encourage the conflation of Wilsonian internationalism with subsequent yet distinct developments in American foreign policy. The confused result promotes ideological over historical readings of the nation’s past, which in turn constrain critical and creative thinking about its present and future as a world power.