We'd Be Better Off If Our Foreign Policy Was Less Woodrow Wilson and More Colonel House

News Abroad

Mr. Hodgson is a British commentator on American history and politics. He worked in Washington as a correspondent for many years and is now an Associate Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford University. His biography of Colonel House, Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand, has recently been published by Yale University Press.

At a time when leaders in both major parties claim their foreign policy is Wilsonian, it is opportune to look closely at the tensions between Woodrow Wilson, with his yearning to convert the world to American ideals, and the more pragmatic approach of his close friend and collaborator, Colonel House.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been a revival in the United States of the strategy known as “Wilsonian” — the idea, that is, that it is the destiny and the duty of the United States to use its great power to spread American ideas of democracy and also the American version of capitalism throughout the world.

The foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration is unmistakably Wilsonian in so far as it aspires to spread democracy and capitalism to the Middle East and elsewhere. But the Clinton administration, too, saw itself as Wilsonian. In its early months, President Clinton himself and three leading members of his foreign policy team, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Tony Lake and United Nations Ambassador Madeleine Albright, who later succeeded Christopher at the State Department, all made speeches explicitly proclaiming their loyalty to a Wilsonian commitment to spreading democracy to as much of the world as possible.

Woodrow Wilson had little knowledge or interest in foreign policy when he was elected president. His foreign policy was largely a product of his close friendship and working partnership with Colonel Edward House. Until Wilson, ill, influenced by his second wife’s suspicion of House, and frustrated by his inability to control the Paris peace conference, broke with his friend in the spring of 1919, House was as close a collaborator as any president ever had. Wilson said of him “his thoughts and mine are one.”

Although historians have portrayed him as little more than a crony, House’s immense contribution to Wilson’s foreign policy can be documented.

Before the European war broke out in 1914, he visited Europe and saw both the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, and the Kaiser in a last minute attempt to stop the war.

After war started, he visited Europe repeatedly to try to stop the fighting and bring about a negotiated peace. He helped to draft Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points and played a key role in writing the covenant of the League of Nations. He helped Wilson pull off a brilliant diplomatic stroke by getting the Germans to surrender on the basis of the Fourteen Points. Only at the Paris peace conference, where he was Wilson’s chief assistant delegate, was he unsuccessful, because Wilson thought he was conceding too much to the European powers.

House has had a lasting influence on the style of American diplomacy. He was the first of those direct personal presidential emissaries, like Harry Hopkins and Henry Kisssinger, who have often had more influence than secretaries of state. When he put together the Inquiry, a group of scholars to advise Wilson on America’s war aims, he inaugurated the tradition of involving experts from the great graduate schools to advise presidents, again at the expense of the Department of State.

More relevant to the problems of shaping foreign policy today is the disagreement between Wilson and House that led to their eventual falling out. Wilson was an idealist, a superb orator, and a man who believed it was enough for him to tell the world what he believed ought to be done, and the world, bludgeoned into agreement by his moral and rhetorical force, would consent.

House, gray eminence and kingmaker behind four Democratic governors of Texas, liked to sit down with men across the table, to understand what they wanted, and to see how far their interests could be made to coincide with those of the United States and with the vision he largely shared with his president. He was, in short — not in the technical sense in which the word is used in academic international relations, but in the common usage — a realist.

In part, this was a matter of temperament. If Wilson was a child of Mary, House, quiet and unassertive, was a child of Martha. There was also the difference between the academic who became president almost before he had gone into politics, and the man who had spent years in the gritty exchanges of Texas politics, then many months getting to know the realities and the personalities of European politics, and equipped himself with a superb private intelligence network.

House understood by 1914 that murderous forces, especially German militarism, were marching the civilized world toward disaster. He saw that the United States could not avoid involvement in this looming tragedy. Like his friend Wilson, he passionately wanted the United States to be the greatest power of the twentieth century, through the weight not only of economic and military power but also of moral and ideological influence.

The difference was that Wilson saw politics not as a map, with stubborn, irremovable features — rivers and mountain ranges to be crossed — but as a theorem inscribed with the luminous simplicity of his own moral purity on a sheet of blank paper. House saw political leadership as a matter of dealing with people as they were, warts and all.

Wilson hated the old diplomacy, whereby statesmen would bargain away whole provinces with no regard to the wishes of their people. Yet he found himself in Paris doing just that. Just one example was the German-speaking lands in the Alps given to Italy. House shared Wilson’s commitment to the American ideal that governments must have the consent of the governed. But he also understood that American ideals must survive the realities of international diplomacy, and survive the unfriendly scrutiny of a Senate controlled by Henry Cabot Lodge.

At a time when an American administration is inspired with a Wilsonian vision of a world transformed by American democracy, it is time, I believe, to reexamine the debate at the heart of the Wilson Administration’s foreign policy between Wilson himself, with his faith in the transforming power of American ideals, expressed in blazing, biblical rhetoric, and the more patient, realistic skills of Colonel House, with his nose for politics, whether in Europe or in Washington, as the art of the possible.

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    John L Mather - 9/21/2006

    "House understood by 1914 that murderous forces, especially German militarism, were marching the civilized world toward disaster."

    How in the world was "German militarism" any more murderous or threatening to civilization than the British and French armies that had been systematically overrunning and causing enormous damage in civilized countries like India (tens of millions of Indians killed in late 1800's by British malfeasance in the midst of famines), South Africa (British massacres of Boer and Zulu women and children in the concentration camps), China (the Opium Wars in which Britain, France and other countries burned down an ancient Chinese Imperial Garden and forced tons of opium onto the Chinese people, who were basically forcibly addicted), Australia (aboriginal civilization nearly wiped out by the British) and Western/Central Africa (King Leopold in the Congo comes to mind)?

    If anything, German militarism was far *less* damaging and on a much smaller scale at the time than the destruction wrought by Britain, in particular, throughout Asia, Oceania and Africa as noted above. Furthermore, after World War I, the British and French made sure to foul things up even more royally by carving up the Ottoman Empire as they did-- founding that pseudo-nation of Iraq in classic divide-and-rule style to access the region's oil, among other things, and directly initiating the Middle Eastern mess in which we're currently mired today.

    I find it funny how often it's ignored that the British in Iraq, finding themselves on the losing end of battles to suppress pesky Iraqi rebels in the 1920's, resorted to terror bombing civilians as a result. The Luftwaffe bombers at Guernica in the 1930's were nothing new-- the British started the era of terror bombing in 1920-22 against the Iraqis when Arthur Bomber Harris, incompetent fool that he was even back then, decided to target Iraqi civilians rather than rebel camps, thereby inflaming Iraqi rage even further and ensuring British defeat in Iraq later that decade. Winston Churchill himself wanted to gas the Iraqis: "I do not understand this sqeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes."

    So the British were somehow being "protectors of civilization," as opposed to those dastardly, militaristic Germans, when they went in bombing the crap out of one of the world's most ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia? Any attempt to cast WWI as a "moral conflict" with the British as the good guys is patently ridiculous-- it was a colonial war plain and simple, and if anything, the German militarism paled in comparison the bloody organized violence that the Brits in particular had been perpetrating in Ireland and outside of Europe for almost 150 years, up to 1914. (Remember, the single bloodiest, ugliest action against civilians during WWI was by the British against the Irish people in 1916.)

    "He [Edward House] saw that the United States could not avoid involvement in this looming tragedy."

    That's pretty ridiculous, to put it mildly. If anything, it was US intervention-- when it did happen-- that made WWI an even bigger tragedy and ensured even greater disaster later with WWII and the Cold War. By 1917, the European Powers had bled each other dry, and a knock-out punch of any sort was just about out of the question. The best conclusion for WWI at that point, would have been for all the powers to realize the stupidity of their blunders in 1914, then come to a sort of status quo ante armistice by 1917 to just throw their weapons down-- sort of like what George Bernard Shaw was only half-facetiously suggesting. With the exhaustion and the tremendous losses on all sides, it would have been the crucial lesson that the European powers needed to realize that such militarism was foolish and fraught with far more cost than gain. No Versailles vindictiveness, and burning resentment and revenge as a result of Versailles, as soon developed in Germany; the Kerensky government in Russia being officially recognized and, most importantly, freed from the continuing war burdens that enabled the Bolsheviks to seize power and effectively ignite the Cold War in 1917 (with the European powers in the West now also free to lend support to the anti-Bolshevik forces in the Russian Civil War, whom they all supported); and most importantly, no idiotic Treaties of Sevres and Lausanne and its successors enabling the British and French to stupidly carve up the Ottoman Empire as they did.

    We're still paying for the stupidity of Woodrow Wilson and Edward House in entering WWI in 1917-- the entire map of the Middle East that is miring the US and Britain in these stupid wars and bankrupting our economies, draining away what's left of our prestige in the world, is a direct result of the idiotic machinations of Britain and France in World War I's aftermath. Why do you think a belligerent strongman like Saddam Hussein was able to seize power in Iraq in the first place? Because only a thuggish strongman like Saddam could have held together the cartographical contradiction that Arnold Wilson, Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchill engineered when they drew the borders of Iraq, with its seething Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Kurds tossed in against each other. The British Protectorate in Iraq, in turn, was enabled by the stupidity of America's entry into WWI in 1917. (I won't even go into Woodrow Wilson's shameful trampling of civil rights and persecution of Irish-, German-, and Black Americans after 1917-- another ugly consequence of US war participation then.) The best thing the Americans could have done, would have been to stay out and let the European powers fight each other to a bloody pulp and a stalemate, then act as a negotiator with its actions to back up its claims of impartiality.

    Alfred Kirke - 9/16/2006

    Read Vols 1 and 2 of The Intimate Papers of Colonel House. You will then lie awake at night, when the news tells that the President is stirring in foreign policy intrigues.