Shadow Government

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: The Echoes of Woodrow Wilson in Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

While no historical comparison between two presidents serving a century apart is perfect, there are a number of remarkable similarities to consider.


As the presidential debates conclude and the 2016 elections move into the homestretch, candidates on both sides of the aisle are attempting to frame the Barack Obama administration’s foreign policy in a historical context either to embrace its legacy or to contrast their positions from its perceived failures. Indeed, Obama himself began the historical defense of his national security record in his April interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, and more recently in his address to the United Nations General Assembly. As one sympathetic commentator, David Ignatius, said of the latter: “Through the speech, you could hear early soundings of the memoir he must already be starting to compose in his head.”

If so, the U.N. was a fitting venue. Despite previous efforts to compare Obama to Lincoln and FDR — or less flatteringly, to Jimmy Carter, and even to George Costanza (although, given the Seinfeld gang’s conviction under Latham, Massachusetts’s Good Samaritan law, George obviously would never have intervened militarily in Libya in 2011, claiming a “responsibility to protect”) — the predecessor whose foreign policy Obama’s perhaps most resembles is Woodrow Wilson.

While no historical comparison between two presidents serving a century apart is perfect, there are a number of remarkable similarities to consider:

— Both were relatively inexperienced in foreign affairs prior to running for president and hoped to concentrate on domestic affairs once in the Oval Office. Wilson had served as New Jersey’s governor for less than two years prior to being elected president and told a friend prior to his inauguration that “It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal with foreign problems, for all my preparation has been in domestic matters.” Similarly, Obama had been a community organizer, part-time law professor, and state senator before joining the U.S. Senate, where he served on the Foreign Relations Committee for less than two years before announcing his candidacy. The Economist noted after his reelection in December 2012 that “Obama and his team believe that his outstanding task is to secure a domestic legacy. Their fear is that foreign entanglements may threaten that goal.”

— Despite this inexperience, both presidents often bypassed their top foreign policy officials in favor of informal advisors. As sympathetic Wilson biographer John Milton Cooper Jr. concedes, Wilson “came to be widely viewed as an aloof, imperious figure who neither consulted nor dealt closely with his top lieutenants.” His Secretary of State Robert Lansing was excluded from almost all negotiating sessions during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Instead, Wilson relied primarily on “Colonel” Edward M. House, whom he called “my second personality. He is my independent self.” Similarly, Obama ignored virtually all his military commanders on the need to retain U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011, as well as his senior national security advisors on enforcing his self-declared redline on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. Obama entrusted the diplomacy enabling his historic, if ill-advised, opening to Cuba to a communications advisor, Ben Rhodes. Other political advisors with no previous national security experience, e.g. Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, were included in Obama’s foreign policy inner circle to such a degree that former Obama State Department official Vali Nasr — in his book, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat — wrote: “The president’s habit of funneling major foreign policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers whose turf was strictly politics was disturbing.”

— Both derided what they perceived to be the overly emotional nature of American foreign policy. At the outbreak of World War I, Wilson rebuked those who advocated U.S. intervention by declaring that Americans must remain “impartial in thought as well as in action” and must demonstrate “the fine poise of undisturbed judgement, the dignity of self-control” in order “to do what is necessary and disinterested and truly serviceable to the peace of the world.” Similarly, Goldberg notes that Obama “has never believed that terrorism poses a threat to America commensurate with the fear that it generates,” and Rhodes told a reporter that “a cascade of fear-mongering,” in Obama’s view, was debasing U.S. foreign policy. The president himself told Goldberg, “for me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time,” as if the occasional excesses of Fox News were the only basis for criticism of his administration’s policies.

— In addition to circumventing their foreign policy “establishments,” both presidents rejected the predominant international relations paradigms of their time. Prior to America’s entry into World War I, Wilson declared: “There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace.” After the war, he declared the Allied soldiers “fought to do away with an old order and to establish a new one, and the center and characteristic of the old order was that unstable thing which we used to call the ‘balance of power’…. The men who have fought in this war have been the men from free nations who were determined that that sort of thing should end now and forever.” Obama has sought to redefine U.S. global leadership by leading from behind and using American inaction in hopes of incentivizing other nations to take the lead in crises ranging from Syria to the Ukraine. He has rejected the traditional balance of power in the Middle East, expressing his desire for a new “equilibrium developing between … [the] Gulf states and Iran” and his belief that Iran could be “a very successful regional power.” And he has openly dismissed foreign leaders’ strategic outlooks as anachronistic, lamenting at the end of his 2009 Moscow visit that amongst Russian leaders, “unfortunately, there is sometimes a sense that old assumptions must prevail … a 19th century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence.”

— Despite protestations about power’s role in international affairs, both were willing to use force against weaker or failing states. Wilson seized the Mexican port of Vera Cruz over a minor point of honor, an operation that cost 19 American and 126 Mexican lives. He also ordered military interventions in Haiti and Nicaragua, and deployed more than 10,000 troops to Mexico in 1916 in pursuit of the revolutionary general Pancho Villa. Obama (correctly) noted that “the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace” in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Subsequently, the Obama administration expanded the targeted killing campaigns against al Qaida leaders in Pakistan and Yemen more than tenfold, raising the number of drone strikes from 49 during the Bush administration to 531, and approved the air campaign that deposed Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi.

— Even while conducting these military campaigns, both advocated admirable ideals. In January 1918 Wilson outlined America’s war aims before a joint session of Congress in the form of Fourteen Points. These included arms control, freedom of trade, self-determination for ethnic minorities, and the establishment of the League of Nations in order to adjudicate international conflicts and, if necessary, enforce collective security. As Henry Kissinger has noted, “Every American president since Wilson has advanced variations of Wilson’s theme.” Today, Obama’s goal of nuclear disarmament is noble — even if the specifics of his administration’s nuclear agreements with Russia and Iran reveal them to be dangerously flawed pacts. Indeed, elements of Obama’s U.N. speech — acknowledging that democratic aspirations are “universal” across cultures, appealing to nations to “strengthen international cooperation rooted in the rights and responsibilities of nations” — are generally supported by even the administration’s harshest critics.

— In the end, the conviction with which Presidents Wilson and Obama clung to these ideals in the face of countervailing evidence produced devastating consequences. None of the other major powers shared Wilson’s revolutionary concept of international relations, and Wilson failed to appreciate France’s insecurity after World War I. Consequently, the other powers exploited his zealousness to create a League of Nations, and obtained American acquiescence to an unprecedentedly harsh peace that sowed the seeds of the next war. Similarly, the world today stubbornly refuses to conform to Obama’s vision — however honorable at times — of how diplomacy should be conducted in the 21st century. Obama goes to great lengths to insist that he is a foreign policy “realist”, and indeed, his rhetoric and actions suggest he subscribes to what academics call “defensive realism.” This paradigm posits that in an anarchic international system, states behave badly not because of the unique characteristics of their leadership or predominant ideology, but rather because they feel threatened by other states. In Obama’s eyes, the George W. Bush administration’s recklessness and bullying made America appear threatening to much of the world. Hence, upon taking office in 2009, Obama embarked upon a series of gestures — his Cairo University speech, his Nowruz message to the Iranian people and secret correspondence with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and his “reset” with Russia — intended to repudiate his predecessor’s foreign policy. He sought to further ameliorate other states’ perception of the United States as a threat by using multilateral venues to restrain American power. Unfortunately, instead of responding with accommodations of their own, China, Iran, and Russia interpreted Obama’s gestures as signs of American weakness and withdrawal. The result has been Russia’s conquest of Crimea and intervention in Syria; China’s military expansion in the South China Sea; and Iran’s support of destabilizing proxies in Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, and continued development of ballistic missiles despite the Vienna nuclear accords. Yet Obama famously dismissed Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Goldberg interview: “You don’t see [Putin] in any of these meetings out here helping to shape the agenda. For that matter, there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.” It is not only wholly unrealistic of Obama to assume that what is important to him, i.e. setting the agenda at international conferences, should be what motivates other world leaders — it is dangerously naive and detrimental to U.S. strategic interests.

In the end, however, Wilson appears more as a tragic figure than anything else. After correctly assessing the strategic threat posed by a German victory in World War I, he skillfully managed the U.S. war effort that led to the Allied victory. Sadly, his hubris and rigidity towards the Senate’s relatively modest reservations about the Treaty of Versailles led to America’s withdrawal from the international balance of power precisely when it was most needed. Wilson’s successors lacked either the foresight or political courage to correct the mistake of U.S. retrenchment until it was too late and World War II was inevitable. Conversely, Obama not only lacks a comparable strategic achievement upon which to base his legacy — while he made the correct call authorizing the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, it ultimately had little effect on the strategic threat posed by terrorism — and the consequences of Obama’s willful misunderstanding of foreign actors are already apparent in the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Syria, the increased risk of a military confrontation with China, and in the increasingly destabilizing and provocative behavior of Russia and Iran.

Regardless of who occupies the Oval Office on January 21st, his or her first responsibility will be to recognize America’s adversaries for who they are rather than who we want them to be. Unlike Wilson’s successors, the next president will not have the luxury of waiting two decades to address this administration’s strategic missteps.

Image credit: The White House Historical Association Digital Library/Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Runkle, PhD, has served as in the Defense Department, as a Director on the National Security Council, and as a Professional Staff Member on the House Armed Services Committee.

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