To hear critics tell it, the American preoccupation with promoting democracy around the world is the product of a dangerous idealistic impulse..... It fuels periodic American "crusades" to remake the world, which, as President Woodrow Wilson discovered after World War I, can land the country in serious trouble...
After President Wilson's spectacular failure to create world order through the League of Nations after World War I, liberal internationalism was badly discredited. And the charge that Wilson and his followers were sentimental idealists was not unjustified. "In the conduct of foreign affairs," writes Wilson biographer Arthur S. Link, Wilson's "idealism meant for him the subordination of immediate goals and material interests to superior ethical standards and the exaltation of moral and spiritual purposes."....
Woodrow Wilson was probably the purest believer in the proposition that democracies maintain more peaceful relations, and his great optimism about the prospects for democracy around the globe after World War I accounts for his exaggerated hopes for world peace. "A steadfast concert of peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants," he declared in 1917.
Emerging from World War I, Woodrow Wilson believed that the world stood on the brink of a great democratic revolution, and so it seemed obvious to build order around the idea of a universal democratic community. But the democratic revolution never came, as Russia lapsed into totalitarianism and even Continental Europe failed to develop the democratic qualities Wilson expected.
G. JOHN IKENBERRY, currently a Wilson Center Fellow, is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major War (forthcoming). He is also coeditor of American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies, and Impacts (forthcoming).
This article is a series of extracts from a longer article on http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/exdem.htm
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