Why Wilson Matters

Why Wilson Matters

The Origin of American Liberal Internationalism and Its Crisis Today

Tony Smith

Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2017, 352 pages

Book Review published on: July 7, 2017

The one hundredth anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I provides an opportunity to reflect on what then and now compels and propels our nation into action on the world stage. Tony Smith, professor of international and comparative politics at Tufts University, capitalizes on this centennial. In Why Wilson Matters, he offers a scholarly work that is neither a biography on President Woodrow Wilson, a history of how the United States entered World War I, nor a tome on U.S. international affairs. Rather, he addresses the genesis of “Wilsonianism,” the American version of the international relations (IR) theory liberalism. It advocates an activist foreign policy that promotes and supports constitutional democracies globally for the sake of a peaceful and stable international order, thereby, ensuring America’s national security.

The book analyzes Wilson’s academic works, presidential policies, and post-White House activities, and presents Wilson’s thinking and contribution to the liberal internationalist tradition. The chapters evaluate its deployment, identify its mutations, determine their consequences, and argue for a return to its original schema as promulgated by Wilson. The stated objectives of Why Wilson Matters are threefold. First, it traces Wilson’s policies and proposals to his prior academic writings and lectures. Second, it describes Wilsonianism and differentiates it from other alternative international relations theories and variants of liberalism. Third, it aspires to prevent Wilsonianism as a political theory from joining other failed “—isms” in the trash-bin of history, and to rescue it from the intellectuals, policy makers, and pundits who since the 1990s have damaged its reputation. The three sections of the book acquaint readers with the IR theory of liberalism and Wilson’s place in its pantheon of proponents, explain the origins of Wilsonianism, and analyze its implementation and metamorphosis.

The book boasts three major strengths. First, Smith provides extensive evidence of a Wilsonian doctrine through numerous quotes of Wilson’s academic articles, presidential statements, and post-White House speeches. Second, he traces Wilsonianism’s impact on successive presidential policies and highlights their speeches where the reader can see its echoes. Third, his chapters identify academics and statesmen on both the left and right who espouse and have attempted to implement classical and neo-Wilsonian principles.

Two of its three weaknesses lay in editing. First, lengthy quotes repeat themselves in successive chapters; this distracts the reader. Second, the review process missed correcting the date of the Central Intelligence Agency’s intervention in Chile—it occurred in 1973, not 1993. Third, Smith identifies Wilson as the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, states that Wilson adhered to the Presbyterian doctrine of “Reformed Protestantism,” and was a Calvinist. Yet, the author neglects or intentionally omits to describe, compare, and contrast these terms and their impact on Wilson’s writings and policies. Wilson’s rival, Theodore Roosevelt, a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, also considered himself a Calvinist. When considering how faith influenced Wilson’s perspective, writings, and policies, a reader would benefit from further elucidation and gain in a distinction between how the twenty-sixth and twenty-eighth presidents interpreted and implemented, if at all, their faith.

Why Wilson Matters benefits the international relations theorist of any stripe. For the realist, it provides in-depth insight into the development of American liberal internationalism. For the liberal, it traces where Democratic Peace Theory, Democratic Transition Theory, and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine hijacked classical Wilsonianism. The adherents of the aforementioned theories and doctrine neglected Wilson’s fundamental prerequisites for democracy to evolve. They believed that planning, resources, and resolve could accomplish the mission of democratic transformation. Our recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan prove contrary. National security students and practitioners often face the predicament of too little time to read too many books. Accordingly, they may focus on the following pages to capture Smith’s thesis: the introduction, chapter one’s description of Wilson’s concepts of the origins and prerequisites of democracy, chapter four’s summation of “classical Wilsonianism,” chapter six’s depiction of the morphing of classical Wilsonianism into the beginnings of neo-Wilsonianism after the dissolution of Soviet Union, and chapter seven’s evaluation of its implementation by neoconservatives and liberal internationalists in the first two presidential administrations of the twenty-first century.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Robert D. Spessert, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Gordon, Georgia