100 Years Later, Wilson’s Fourteen Points Deserve Another Look

This January 8 marks the 100th anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech, a foundational moment in America’s rise to define and lead a rules-based world order. Wilson has not been in fashion for some time: his political rigidity at the end of his career probably tanked Senate acceptance of the League of Nations, the culmination of the Fourteen Points; his embrace of national self-determination as a basis for nation states has limits and downside risks; and “Wilsonian Idealism” is frequently dismissed as impractical cant or cover for determined American pursuit of its national interests. Add to this Wilson’s appalling record on race relations in America.

And yet, for all his flaws and for all their flaws, Wilson’s Fourteen Points stand as the first draft, an early and astonishing assertion, of America’s Grand Strategy for the American Century; at 100, they are worth another look.

In January of 1918, the Great War was at its height and Germany might still win. It held large areas of France and had defeated Russia, now led by Vladimir Lenin and Lev Trotsky.  The Bolsheviks, just weeks in power, were preparing to capitulate to Germany, but proclaimed that their time had come; they predicted that general revolution would sweep away the old European order which had brought the war and were nearly proven right.

Enter America, which had declared war on Germany the previous April, and whose armies were finally beginning to arrive in France in force. American power would prove decisive, and Wilson chose that moment to enumerate America’s war aims and post-war plans. The French, British, and Italian Allies, and for that matter the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, had fought within the established European balance-of-power framework, and details of their war aims were included in secret treaties. Their people literally did not know what they were fighting for (until Lenin and Trotsky published some of the secret arrangements in an effort to discredit the “imperialist” powers). 

The Fourteen Points, by design, challenged both the substance of the Allied war aims and their zero-sum, balance-of-power premises; and countered Lenin’s revolutionary theses:

– Point 1 (“open covenants of peace, openly arrived at”) attacked the legitimacy of the pre-existing Allied war aims, a warning that while America might provide the means of Allied victory, we would do so for the sake of our vision of a proper world order, not theirs.

– Points 2-4 and Point 14 sketched out a rules-based world order in terms that seem familiar:  freedom of navigation; “equality of trade conditions,” applying only to those signing on to the League of Nations; ill-defined disarmament; and a League of Nations to guarantee the peace and the principles of the Fourteen Points.

– Point 5 called for “adjustment of colonial claims,” which on one level only applied to German colonies to be seized, but also started to undermine the imperialist claims of all the great powers (the United States included) by positing that a colonial power was merely a temporary trustee with responsibilities for the administered territory. This was no frontal attack on Western colonialism, but was a step in that direction.

The Fourteen Points themselves dealt with Germany only by inference, but in his speech presenting them, Wilson made clear that his aim was to integrate, not crush, Germany: “We have no jealousy of German greatness… if she is willing to associate herself with us and the other peace-loving nations of the world… We wish her only to accept a place of equality among the peoples of the world.” This, in the midst of the war.

– Points 6-13 outlined, in some detail, the United States’ aims for ordering Europe in the wake of the collapse of the Russian Empire, the anticipated collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and Germany’s defeat. Some covered Western Europe—German-occupied Belgium was to be restored and German-controlled Alsace-Lorraine returned to France. Others advocated emergence of ethnic-based nation states in Central and Eastern Europe, including the reemergence of Poland, and the Balkans, which is pretty much how it turned out.

– Point 6 covered Russia, and an internal interpretive memo commissioned by Wilson’s national security advisor Edward (“Colonel”) House (drafted in part by House’s then-staffer Walter Lippmann) makes clear that Point 6 means Finnish, Baltic, and possibly Ukrainian independence, and perhaps even some form of protectorate for Russia’s Central Asian provinces. Russia was to be welcomed into the post-war world, but as a nation, not an empire. Not until the 1990s, in the wake of another Russian imperial collapse, would the United States think of Eastern Europe’s and Eurasia’s future in such sweeping terms, and when we did, we took up where Point 6 left off.

What staggering self-confidence we had!  With the American frontier and Civil War living memories, still considered cultural provincials, even by ourselves, we assumed a right of world leader. In the face of the world’s most destructive war, Wilson offered a new system, “that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation.”

Not mere “idealism,” the American system Wilson sketched out undid the imperial sphere of influence model then extent in favor of an open system which would play to the United States’ new and growing economic strengths. Wilson understood that by extending our values we advanced our interests (e.g., through a fair-trading system without closed commercial empires).

Historians (including my former professor, the sage Walter LaFeber) have fairly noted the inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and nasty unintended consequences of Wilson’s outline of US world leadership. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau gave us the greatest sardonic assessment of the Fourteen Points in his quip, “God gave us the Ten Commandments and we broke them. Wilson gives us the Fourteen Points. We shall see.”  (What American diplomat presenting some bold proposal from Washington has not faced that sort of French smackdown?)

But let us also judge the Fourteen Points by the standards of the competition: Lenin’s call for revolution and Clemenceau’s dogged pursuit of France First. Classic European nationalism gave the world 1914; Lenin was to give Russia the Red Terror and set the stage for greater terrors to come, for Russians and tens of millions of others. In contrast, Wilson gave us a crude, imperfect version of world order based on rules, an off-ramp from colonialism, and war aims which at least attempted to be enlightened, commensurate with the sacrifice of World War 1.

By that measure, the Fourteen Points stand well as the first attempt of American global leadership. In the short term, Clemenceau was right. Wilson’s vision failed, and that failure led to another World War and Cold War. Yet, after 1945 and again after 1989, faced with strategic choices, the United States returned to Wilson’s Grand Strategy, our default mode, as it turns out. The results were generations of general peace and unprecedented prosperity.

To find American greatness, we need but look at what Wilson attempted 100 years ago: construction of a rules-based order in which the United States and other democracies would prosper. Wilson was a flawed leader, as were the United States’ founders before him, prone to inconsistency and hypocrisy.  But like them, he attempted something better than himself. Rather than make the United States small again, we should attempt no less in our time.

Daniel Fried is a distinguished senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative and Eurasia Center. In the course of his forty-year Foreign Service career, Ambassador Fried played a key role in designing and implementing American policy in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.

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Image: US President Woodrow Wilson (pictured) “understood that by extending our values we advanced our interests,” writes Daniel Fried, a distinguished senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative and Eurasia Center. (www.whitehouse.gov)