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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe End of the Wilsonian Era: Why Liberal Internationalism Failed

The End of the Wilsonian Era: Why Liberal Internationalism Failed

Author: Walter Russell Mead

Affiliation: Bard College (New York)

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: January/February 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 5504


Keywords: Woodrow Wilson, the Wilsonian Order, Liberal Internationalism, the Crisis of Liberalism, and Rising Global Powers




The author discusses here a number of reasons why he is convinced of liberal internationalism’s failure and the end of the Wilsonian era as he calls it, which has dominated US foreign policy since the end of World War II. He also believes that the next stage of world history will not develop according to the Wilsonian line. Before detailing these reasons, the author puts before us the personality of President Woodrow Wilson, the main inspirer of liberal internationalism, as well as the domestic and international conditions that characterized his era. Despite being the most influential person since 1945 in the US, and in the foundations upon which the post-war order was built (human rights, international institutions, universal human values …), he was a terribly racist figure, and he was not an original thinker but a collector of ideas prevailing in his time. Moreover, the international order that he called for, and his ideas that traveled to Europe to build the League of Nations after World War I, were familiar at that time. Since the Roman Empire, Europe has known many world orders based on similar rules, albeit in a limited area. His endeavor was focused on fixing the flaws of an existing international order that emerged in the wake of World War I. Wilson’s ideas did not gain widespread support even within the US itself, thus he died a bitterly disappointed man. After a few decades, these ideas became a source of inspiration for leaders and diplomats, activists and intellectuals across the world. It had great success in Europe in particular, and even a movement appeared inside and outside the US bearing its name, “Wilsonianism”, which prevailed strongly for nearly a century. 

Numerous reasons have led to the end of the contemporary Wilsonian era, the most prominent of which are: 1. The simplistic and optimistic Wilsonian view of the historical process, especially when it comes to the impact of technological progress on the human social system. Wilson was a progressive advocate of the Anglo-Saxon liberal determinism close to Hegelianism. Human history is linear progress and improvement narrative, which Fukuyama expressed in “the end of history”, where humanity will reach a great convergence in its life model (based on liberal democracy of course). This perspective was influenced by the Calvinist religious teachings that believed in the millennium of peace and prosperity before the end of humanity, but the Wilsonians covered it with a secular model. Throughout history, this perspective has been frustrated every time. In the Wilson era, Nazism emerged after the end of World War I, just as “history did not end” after the fall of the Soviet Union as they believed. Today, this fact becomes clear with the rise of China, Russia, and other illiberal nations. 2. The return of geopolitics fueled by ideology, where China, Russia, and a number of smaller powers (such as Iran) today openly view the Wilsonian ideals as a deadly threat to their internal arrangements. As they see Wilsonians as a mere cover for American ambitions (and to some extent European), which made them more daring to oppose and obstruct Wilson’s initiatives (such as humanitarian interference) within international institutions such as the UN, or on the ground, as is happening now in Syria or the South China Sea. 3. Technological innovation and the information revolution has created an obstacle to Wilsonian goals, contrary to what the Wilsonians believed—that technological progress would make the world more governable, and politics more rational. The spread of the Internet and new technologies have undermined democracies and aided despotic regimes, as well as increased political polarizations and populists around the world. 4. The military-technological revolution, especially the nuclear one, made the Wilsonian order an unattainable dream, as it maximized the state’s sovereignty, so no one could easily make a humanitarian intervention against nuclear power. It would also be difficult to control the development of cyber and biological weapons and ban many major technologies altogether because of their beneficial civilian uses. Furthermore, the huge economic benefits that come from these technologies stimulate their expansion and continuity. This is why a multipolar arms race looms which will dampen hopes of reviving the Wilsonian order again. 5. The similarity of countries in their political (liberal democracy) and economic (liberal capitalist model) systems is a factor in the success of the Wilsonian world order. The Wilsonians believed that human development would make the nations of the world more liberal and similar. However, what is happening today indicates the exact opposite, at least in the medium term, as countries such as China, Russia, India, Turkey, and Hungary are less likely to meet with liberal democracy. Economically and technologically, these countries have evolved not to become more like the West, but to achieve deeper independence from it and the pursuit of their own civilizational and political goals. 6. The rise of populism, which brought a person like Trump to power in 2016 and may do so again in the future in the US or the rest of the “free world.” 7. Local and international institutions are currently facing a deep crisis of confidence that they are unlikely to overcome anytime soon. This has been due to the increase in the number of educated people and the expansion of internet users, which caused a decline in people’s respect for experts and technocrats in state institutions; and especially after people saw how these experts dealt inefficiently with crises such as the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, there is a feeling that their instructions are not needed and not trusted.  Based on all these reasons, the author suggests that the world will evolve away from the Wilsonian order and sometimes even against it. 

Walter Russell Mead devotes the last section of his essay to talking about the challenges that Biden and his (liberal Wilsonian) administration will face, which offers bright hopes to revive Wilsonianism after its severe decline in the Trump era, stressing that focusing on the past Wilsonian glories will not help to develop the necessary ideas and policies at a time of increased risks. The author briefly explains the four main schools that American foreign policy has known throughout history (Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jacksonian, and Jeffersonian), then recommending Biden to abandon excessive Wilsonian and balance in his foreign policy the ideas of other schools to preserve the continuity of the positive Wilsonian legacy as much as possible. In the end, he argues that despite this current Wilsonian recession, the Wilsonian vision will still have an impact as long as it is deeply embedded in the American political culture, and the values to which it speaks have too much global appeal.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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