Wilsonian Neutrality, and Trump’s Internationalism.

Woodrow Wilson’s Crypt, National Cathedral

This comparison between the Trump Administration’s foreign policy and that of the Woodrow Wilson administration began as a 2008 review of a book by Robert W. Tucker. That review was published in H-SHGAPE.[i] I have reworked that review as an outline with which to discuss and compare the current administration with that of the Wilson administration one hundred years ago.

American foreign policy at the time of the First World War is largely overshadowed by the events of the century that followed it. The Second World War, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the collapse of the Soviet Union has captured the attention of historians. Yet important threads of U.S. policy for the century which has just past, as well as the one that we are now beginning, are rooted in the policies of the Wilson administration. Wilson’s vision of what the world should be has persisted in American foreign policy. The changes brought about in international law during his administration have continuing implications in international affairs. For instance, a kind of hyper Wilsonianism has dominated modern foreign policy in the attempts to rebuild the nations of Iraq and Afghanistan. (Though as historians will note, this has little resemblance to anything Woodrow Wilson would have advocated.) The current Trump administration has used similar techniques as Wilson, but in pursuit of opposite ends, as this article will hopefully show. As the United States pursues its current foreign policy, the world is changing around us in ways that might have looked familiar in Wilson’s day, only different Great Powers. In many ways, due to the policies of the current administration, the US is retreating from the dominance of “the American Century” that was given to it during the Wilson and FDR years. The world is returning to the system of competing Great Powers that existed at the beginning of the Wilson era. Thus, a re-examination of this eras policies may shed some insight into today’s world.

Robert W. Tucker has written a solid scholarly book examining the neutrality policy of the Wilson administration from 1914–1917.[ii] That policy, conceived by the president, stimulated unintended change in the international system. Tucker writes, “It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the law of neutrality — or rather Woodrow Wilson’s version of this law — constituted almost the whole of his foreign policy toward the war during the fateful years 1914–17” (p. x). The Great War brought substantial changes to the policy of neutrality as it had been practiced since the end of the Napoleonic wars. Wilson’s failure to enforce American neutrality rights equally between the Allied and the Central Powers hastened those changes. Tucker explains that failure from the vantage point of the president and his advisors.

The President’s bias in the enforcement of neutrality rights highlights the way in which “neutrality” is seldom actually neutral. In more recent administrations this has shown itself in other ways. Wilson’s approach to neutrality was a clear example of his desire for a moral righteousness, as well as a failure of self-awareness. “We must be impartial in thought as well as in action, must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.”[iii] Clearly neither he nor anyone else who actually cared about the war could be impartial in “thought.”

Historians of the Wilson administration must inevitably deal with the complex personality of the president. The president made his foreign policy decisions from a place of isolation “without parallel among American presidents” (Tucker p. 21). In a speech in 1916 the president referred to Abraham Lincoln’s “very holy and terrible isolation” in ways that were revealing of himself. This is often overlooked in the studies on Wilson. Historians try to make sense of the policies by describing a “Wilsonian” consensus in the administration. Assuming a consensus among a group as diverse as Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, Walter Hines Page, Edward M. House and Robert Lansing, men who often had their own agendas is highly problematic.

This complexity also applies to the Administration of Donald Trump. The comparisons are noteworthy. While in Wilson we have one of the most highly educated presidents, the only one with a PhD. A president who was extremely versed in politics, history, and law, who had written and published numerous books and articles on history and government, compared to Trump, a president who seldom reads, is basically incurious about the past, and who shows an open disdain for the idea of education, the differences are stark. But the similarity is also quite compelling. Trump makes his decisions in the same degree of splendid isolation as did Wilson. While he tends to prioritize his gut, and Wilson prioritized his rational analysis of the situation, the outcomes often seem similar. After the US involved in WW1 Wilson routinely bypassed his staff, diplomatic corps, and increasingly made decisions alone. At times typing out State Department instructions from the “Secretary of State” on his own typewriter in the White House. His decision to travel to Europe and negotiate personally at Versailles, not trusting his own diplomats, has often been considered one of his fatal mistakes. Wilson felt that only he could enact his vision, he trusted no one else. This seems to be reflected in the style of Donald Trump in his personal diplomacy with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Though the difference here is stark as well, Wilson despised authoritarian rulers. One of his larger hesitations about helping the allies in WW1 was that Russia’s Tsar was still in power on the allied side. Only after the Spring revolution in 1917 was it clear to Wilson that it was a fight between democracy and autocracy. Trump may be Wilsonian in his practice of personal diplomacy, only in reverse, as he seems to favor autocracy over democracy.

Woodrow Wilson was the singular architect of his administration’s foreign policy. Whatever other forces may have acted upon the president, whatever social forces added to or shaped American policy, it was only “Wilsonian” if it mattered to the president. This was more than just an accident of personality. As a young professor, thinking about the function of government and the role of the president in diplomacy, he had written that the president’s power was “very absolute” in the making of treaties and conduct of foreign policy. Once the president acted in foreign policy, Wilson believed the Senate would be forced by honor to ratify the president’s actions. Isolated, and equipped with this intellectual justification, the president conducted a lonely balancing act between competing internal convictions that often confused his advisors. Yet the president always maintained that he was impartial in his neutrality and tried to be so, even as American policy favored the Allies. While a clearer policy might have had a different influence on the conflict, Wilson remained a mystery to the belligerents in Europe. The notes following the Lusitania incident demonstrate how the antinomy of Wilson’s thought processes produced a policy that was coincidentally contradictory and firm (Tucker p. 121). His advisors and the leaders in Europe (as well as later historians) were and are able to read their own biases into the president’s words.

Whereas Wilson created a contradictory policy based upon his personal rational thought. The current Trump Administration seems to arrive there by gut instinct. Policies are also contradictory, bypass and confound the experts, and confuse both allies and foes alike. But, like Wilson, it is only Trumpian if Trump cares about it. Those policies that do not matter to the President tend to be left in the hands of cabinet secretaries and administrators. Trump, like Wilson, bypasses congress where ever possible. This has earned him the same degree of animosity in that body that ultimately sunk Wilson’s Versailles treaty. The main difference is that Trump, at present, has a very loyal Republican controlled Senate. Wilson was President at a time when Senators were more diverse and representative of their home states. Thus, he had the advantage of being able to cobble together more bi-partisan coalitions, as well as the disadvantage of not being able to rely upon a blindly loyal Democratic Party.

In WW1, the breakdown of neutral rights on the seas was partly the result of changes in naval technology. The inability to adapt the practice of the law to the submarine led to the breakdown of international rules for search, seizure, and blockade (p. 58). The shocking carnage and deadlock of trench warfare on the battlefields of Europe made the belligerent governments desperate and inflexible. The submarine had no precedent in maritime law but was seen by the Germans as the only way to counter the blockade of food and munitions bound to Germany by the British. The British blockade of neutral ports, also outside of the accepted laws pertaining to belligerents’ treatment of neutral shipping, was seen by the British as the only way to use their naval advantage effectively. The uneven enforcement of neutral rights by the United States in the face of these violations reinforced the un-neutral situation on the seas (p. 134–135). The insistence by Wilson of assuring the safety of all-American lives from submarine attack, no matter what ships they traveled on, made the U.S. the defacto protector of all allied shipping. A German submarine could never know for sure if an American citizen might be on board. Thus, each sinking was a possible act of war against a neutral (p. 132–133). At the same time the toleration of British seizure of neutral ships going to neutral ports strengthened the near total British blockade on Germany.

The Trump Administration faces similar technological changes that are affecting international law and making it difficult to continue older policies. The rise of the internet, cyber warfare, and the many technologies that rely on vulnerable satellite communications systems make the prospect of modern war a great unknown. In addition, there are social and political factors that face the Trump administration that are different than all but his most recent predecessors have faced. Among them are the rise of non-state belligerents, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other non-state international terrorist organizations are much harder for an individual nation to defeat. This requires great cooperation among allies. Here the current administration has a vulnerability that the Wilson administration did not. That vulnerability is in the personality of the current occupant of the White House. Whereas Wilson saw the need for a sweeping cooperative international order, based upon generosity and liberal democratic values, the current administration does not. The Trump White House sees an America that goes it alone, a foreign policy based upon monetary values rather than generosity and good will, and a suspicion not merely of international organizations, but also more specifically, democracy. Whereas Wilson won a Nobel Peace Prize for this attempt to make the world safe for democracy, no one expects the current occupant of the White House to get any such award. The reputation of the US has been damaged in the first years of the Trump administration; at the very time it needs that reputation the most. Here is where Trump’s splendid isolation has become dangerous both for the United States and the rest of the world.

Tucker takes up the challenge of explaining how Wilson applied his complex intellectual and personality traits to international law. Wilson called for “impartiality in thought as well as action.” The book argues that he did maintain neutrality in thought but supported a system in which American action was not neutral. American neutrality, “in action,” created a defacto Anglo-American blockade in respect to Germany. Drawing largely upon Wilson’s papers and those of his close advisor Edward M. House as well as Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, Tucker argues that Wilson did remain neutral in heart. On this point it seems the portrait of the president does not quite fit Tucker’s evidence. The documents point to evidence of Wilson’s own self-deception. While Wilson certainly did believe he was neutral, he had a long-standing well-documented bias in favor of Britain and against Germany. Wilson was predisposed to be an Anglophile. He admired British political institutions. His Presbyterianism came from the British Isles. His mother had been born in Britain. Before becoming president, he often took his holidays in Britain. His view of Britain caused him to interpret information in a way that favored British interests and penalized Germany, even as the war progressed and he grew irritated at British violations of American neutrality. He referred to his ambassador to Germany, James Gerard, as “an ass” in the margin of a dispatch passed on to his future wife Edith. He told his friend, Colonel House, in 1914 that the Kaiser had built a war machine and then lit the fuse. He referred to the Germans as “selfish and unspiritual” in those conversations with House. Finally, the very acts of the administration’s diplomacy indicate a bias. There was a House-Grey Memorandum never a House-Zimmerman Memorandum. From the Lusitania crisis onward, the President’s neutrality was in question.[iv]

A similar bias exists in the Trump administration. Though in this case the current occupant of the White House makes no pretense at being unbiased. In his regular tweet storms, he freely shares his prejudice and personal outrage toward all people and events that cross his mind that morning. His bias, however, tends to go the opposite direction from Wilson’s as noted earlier. Trump loves authoritarians. “In February 2016, Donald Trump retweeted a Twitter bot that regularly took quotes from Benito Mussolini and attributed them to Trump. When subsequently asked whether he knew he’d actually been quoting a fascist dictator, the president declined to admit an error. “I know who said it,” he insisted. “But what difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?[v]

This is a radical departure from traditional US policy. This makes the current administration an anti-Wilsonian administration. Trump uses Wilson like means for extremely un Wilson like ends. Where this will end is both troubling and uncertain. On the face of it the comparison between Donald Trump and Woodrow Wilson seems absurd. But it is a worthwhile thought experiment. While the personalities of the two men, the policies of the two men, and the education and intellectual curiosity of the two men, seem diametrically opposed. The singular isolation of the two men in their decision-making processes are quite similar. This leads us to note the weakness of that decision making process for Wilson, a weakness Franklin Roosevelt, a young member of the Wilson administration sought to avoid when he was doing international negotiations at the end of WW2. It also highlights what will likely be historians major negative judgment on the Trump Administration. America first, with a singular and isolated authoritarian president, will, if left unchecked, mean America alone and dramatically weakened.

[i] https://networks.h-net.org/node/20317/reviews/21461/magee-tucker-woodrow-wilson-and-great-war-reconsidering-americas.

[ii] Robert W. Tucker, Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality, 1914–1917, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2009.

[iii] Woodrow Wilson, August 20, 1914: Message on Neutrality.

[iv] John W. Coogan, The End of Neutrality: The United States, Britain, and Maritime Rights, 1899–1915, 1981.

[v] The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/01/trumps-delight-for-putin-duterte-and-mussolini/579652/

Some people think Malcolm may have done nearly everything in his life. It is not true, he is just interested in everything and knows how to tell a good story.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store