Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wilson and ideology

On page 11 of The United States and the End of the Cold War, Gaddis writes, “It was Wilson who publically defined the nation’s objective in entering World war I as making the world ‘safe for democracy’; it followed that Germany was the enemy because it was not democratic. Prior to April, 1917, Wilson’s attitude toward the German government had been one of analytical detachment: he had not held Germany exclusively responsible for the outbreak of the fighting; he had been patient, some said to the point of weakness, with that country’s reliance on submarine warfare; he had called, only weeks before the final rupture of diplomatic relations, for a ‘peace without victory.’ But once the United States became an active belligerent, Wilson’s view shifted dramatically. He now differentiated between the German people and the German government, portraying the latter as the embodiment of autocracy, as a regime with which one could have no dealings if one was to build the foundations for a lasting peace. He demanded its overthrow as a condition for a ceasefire. He thereby saddled the successor republican government with responsibility for an unpopular peace; but, more than that, he created in the minds of Americans an unfortunate association between the form and the behavior of governments. He portrayed autocracy itself the enemy, rather than the uses to which autocracy was put.

“Think, for a moment, about the implications. The United States had coexisted throughout much of its history with autocratic governments. It would not have occurred to American statesmen in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century to claim that because other states did not adhere to democratic principles – few states did at the time – there could be no interests in common with them. Interests were assumed to take precedence over ideology. Yet Wilson had now reversed that order: henceforth ideological differences would claim priority, from the official perspective of the United States government, even over the existence of shared interests.

“The new approach became clear in Wilson’s response to the Bolshevik Revolution. He concentrated on the ideological orientation of the new Russian regime – which was not only autocratic but revolutionary as well – and as a result neglected the possibility that the United States might still share certain interests with it, notably the need to restrain Germany. There followed the abortive American intervention, alongside major World War I allies, in Siberia and North Russia, from any viewpoint one of the least productive political-military enterprises of the century. No one can say what would have happened if the United states had made a more careful effort to separate the interests of Lenin’s government from its rhetoric; what is clear is that Lenin himself never subordinated interests to ideology, and that possibilities existed which Wilson’s preoccupation with form rather than behavior kept him from exploring. It is ironic that in this situation Americans more than the Russians appear to have been the prisoners of ideology.”


Yesterday I took issue with Chomsky for calling America’s anti-communist stance an ideology while not at the same time acknowledging that Communism was an ideology. Is Gaddis agreeing with Chomsky in the above? No, Gaddis is saying something different. He isn’t saying that the American view is an ideology at this point. It isn’t that we have an ideology and that has made us prisoners. He is saying that Wilson began the judging of other nations in terms of their ideologies. If a nation was ideological autocratic, it was, according to Wilson, objectionable. And, according to Gaddis, this Wilsonian construction has inhibited our ability to deal with autocratic regimes; except I think he means uppercase autocracies. We have dealt with autocratic governments in the Middle east and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia is an example. But our view of Communist and Nazi ideologies made it difficult to find common interest with them. Perhaps Wilson influenced us in that regard.

But at the same time, what Gaddis writes is provocative. Do we view autocracies more critically than we should? One thinks of the brutal autocracies we favored during the Cold War for reasons of Realpolitik. Did we find common cause with such nations, or did we merely buy them off. And how “common” is the common cause we have found with such nations as Saudi Arabia?

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