Smart column on our Wilsonian problem

Walter LaFeber, distinguished historian, has a good column in the Washington Post on our country's Wilsonian split personality when it comes to engaging the outside world.

Wilsonianism, more than any other -ism, has shaped the foreign policy thinking of Americans in the early 21st century. Articulated in Wilson's 1917 speech asking Congress to declare war, it rejects neutrality in an age where the conduct of "civilized states" was at issue.

Wilsonianism has been glorified, especially since the American triumph in the Cold War. But it is less a policy than a disorder. That is because at its core, Wilsonianism has a split personality. One Wilson preached the ideal of worldwide democracy and free enterprise under the aegis of the League of Nations. The other Wilson was the greatest unilateral military interventionist in U.S. history.

He sent troops into Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, and it took generations of diplomacy to clean up the results. This was the Wilson who pledged to teach Mexico "to elect good men," even if he ended up sending in U.S. troops to do rather intense, if irrelevant, teaching. This was also the Wilson who, when asked whether he was going into World War I in concert with "allies," replied that the United States would maintain its freedom of action and thus enter the conflict only as an "associated" power.

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