Exactly a century ago, an American politician, whose career seemed to epitomize the old cliche about biting off more than you can chew, had his great moment. Nine months after the declaration of war on the Central Powers, America’s president, Thomas Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress, setting out his preferred formula for an honourable peace settlement for Europe and the wider world as soon as the fighting could stop. In his 8 January 1918 speech, Wilson compared and contrasted his ideals with the reality of the hard-nosed attitude of the German, Austrian and Turkish negotiators at Brest-Litovsk, who were about to deprive Russia of most of its coal and heavy industry as the price of peace. Wilson offered fourteen steps to a better world:
I. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind, but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.
II. Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants.
III. The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.
IV. Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.
V. A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the Government whose title is to be determined.
VI. The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest co-operation of the other nations of the world in obtaining for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development and national policy, and assure her of a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her own choosing; and, more than a welcome, assistance also of every kind that she may need and may herself desire.
VII. Belgium, the whole world will agree, must be evacuated and restored, without any attempt to limit the sovereignty which she enjoys in common with all other free nations.
VIII. All French territory should be freed and the invaded portions restored, and the wrong done to France by Prussia in 1871 in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine, which has unsettled the peace of the world for nearly fifty years, should be righted, in order that peace may once more be made secure in the interest of all.
IX. A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.
X. The peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development.
XI. Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be evacuated; occupied territories restored; Serbia accorded free and secure access to the sea; and the relations of the several Balkan States to one another determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality; and international guarantees of the political and economic independence and territorial integrity of the several Balkan States should be entered into.
XII. The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.
XIII. An independent Polish State should be erected which would include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which would be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.
XIV. A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.
The emphasized parts of the 14 Points are mine, to indicate not only a common theme of Wilson’s war aims but also a principle that whose profile had been highlighted by the Great War and the question of its origins – that of national self-determination. Essentially, Wilson’s point was that sovereign states should be established solely on the basis of shared national identity of all their inhabitants. This was not just a pop at the multinational Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, and the German Empire (whose subjects included mostly Polish-speakers in West Prussia). It was also aimed at Russia and its denial of the national aspirations of Poles, Finns, and the Baltic peoples, and at the British, French, Belgians and Portuguese, with regard to their enormous overseas empires. Wilson’s 8 January speech was therefore a focus of interest among Polish, Czech, and Irish nationalist leaders of the time.
Showing an almost 21st-Century flair for public relations, the US government had the speech translated into a dozen languages, while copies of it were air-dropped into enemy territory from planes and balloons. The 14 Points served to offer German critics of the war a reason for the country to stop fighting, and many of those who later in the year would urge the government to start negotiating peace did so on the understanding that whatever deal the Allies cut with Germany would be on the basis of the 14 Points.
Wilson’s European allies were, in the main, never more than tepidly supportive of his aims. The French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, famously snorted ‘Mr Wilson bores me with his 14 Points. Why, God Almighty has only ten!‘ Clemenceau’s objective – to inflict on the Germans a punishing peace deal that would leave the country incapable of building another war machine again – was popular not only with most of his compatriots but also with most inhabitants of other countries of the Entente. As far as they were concerned, Wilson’s ideal of national self-determination all round did not just sit uneasily with France’s continued possession of a vast African empire, it was missing the big picture.
As it turned out, Wilson did get most of his way on national self-determination: Italy’s frontiers were re-drawn, with Italian-speaking subjects of the Habsburg Empire now becoming subjects of the Kingdom of Italy; a Polish state was set up, with access to the sea; and the Habsburg Empire was broken up and reorganized into separate states, more or less on the basis of shared nationality. Here, of course, the problems started: putting national self-determination into practice and setting up independent states on the basis of shared nationality was one thing – it was quite another to expect that such states would necessarily be stable and viable political and economic units. Even before the Depression hit Europe in 1929, the new eastern European countries suffered considerable economic disruption and hardship as they struggled to organize themselves in the face of new frontiers. Most of the new states began the 1920s as democracies; by the middle of the 1930s all but one of them (Czechoslovakia) would become dictatorships.
There are other problems with the 14 Points, of course. Fans of Wilson’s liberal idealism need to remember that the man himself wasn’t a completely cut-and-dried fan of democracy and self-determination: before his government entered the Great War in 1917 it was shamelessly interfering in America’s neighbours, sending soldiers into Mexico, Haiti and Cuba. At one point he baldly stated ‘I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.’ Not only that, but Wilson the international idealist was also a domestic segregationalist and a sympathizer with the Ku Klux Klan who was more than happy to look the other way as southern states enacted Jim Crow legislation. Finally, it goes without saying that Wilson’s formula for peace failed to solve all disputes, as the eruption of a more terrible conflict just two decades later conclusively proves. Whether such a war could have been averted if the US had joined Wilson’s pet project of the League of Nations remains a debatable point.
Nevertheless, Woodrow Wilson’s ideas – at least, his diplomatic ones – remained influential and survived not just the man himself but also the next war, and his principles of open diplomacy and self-determination underpinned the the setting-up in 1945 of the League of Nations’ successor, the United Nations. In the words of the Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, we are living in ‘a thoroughly Wilsonian world‘:
Ideas that were dismissed as far-fetched and even silly in 1918 have become reality. We really have lifted many barriers to trade and commerce; the continent of Europe really is composed of nation-states that determine, more or less, their own fate, and the same is true at least some of the time on other continents, too. Many conflicts really are resolved by open diplomacy instead of secret treaties. Multiple “associations of nations” really do operate in different spheres and on different continents, helping to smooth international relations.
For the moment, U.S. diplomacy and even the U.S. military are operating within a Wilsonian framework, too. “For our own part,” Wilson declared in January 1918, “we see very clearly that unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us. The program of the world’s peace, therefore, is our program.” At least in theory, American soldiers and civil servants are not in the business of pursuing “conquest and aggrandizement” for their own sake. Their ultimate aim, whatever the policies of the moment, really is “the world’s peace” — or, to translate into less embarrassing language, a world in which genocide and mass murder are reduced to a minimum, in which prosperity and democracy are on the rise, in which Americans can travel and do business according to predictable rules.
Although there are plenty of thinkers and diplomats who like to juxtapose “realism” to Wilsonian idealism, the truth is that even the most hard-eyed Americans now operate in a Wilsonian world, too. They might talk about balances of power and national interests, and they might use less starry-eyed language than the 28th president, but few of them are arguing, say, in favor of colonizing Mexico or stealing land from Canada. In 1918, both the maintenance of foreign colonies and territorial expansion were “normal” foreign policy goals, pursued by pretty much everyone who could afford them. Now they are unthinkable, at least among the “free and self-governed peoples” of the West.
A century after Woodrow Wilson launched 14-pronged plan for peace, the United States has entirely different kinds of leaders, who think nothing of America unilaterally breaching international treaties and treating her allies as an inconvenience (to quote Applebaum, ‘It’s not that they don’t agree with Wilson’s intentions; it’s that they don’t even comprehend them‘). It remains to be seen whether the World Wilson Built can survive another century.
Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.