chapter  1
24 Pages

Democracy promotion from Wilson to Obama

ByTony Smith

Charting the tortured course of American democracy promotion from its origins as a consciously assembled set of concepts to guide foreign policy set out by Woodrow Wilson in 1913 to its incarnation in the hands of Barack Obama a century later presents a host of problems. Fortunately, there is at least limited agreement on the distinct elements essential to a ‘liberal internationalist’, or (in the American context) ‘Wilsonian’, approach to world affairs. There is also general agreement on how liberalism differs from other approaches to the study of international relations such as realism or Marxism. Where the concepts that constitute liberal internationalism come under dispute, however, lies in efforts to explain how these elemental forces interact with one another to create an identity in theoretical terms that is convincingly unified. Turning to the historical record offers only limited help to sort out the contradictions among those who claim to understand the logic of liberal theory. Given the variety of policies pursued over the past century by four generations of leaders in very varied circumstances under the name of Wilsonianism, how does one recognize an essential character to liberalism and so have firmer footing to appreciate its strengths and weaknesses? The argument of this chapter is that the prime mover of liberal theory is the

ability of democratic peoples and governments to maintain an enduring peace among themselves based on their character as individuals, groups and political units. Other elements that are part of the liberal agenda – economic interdependence, multilateral institutions and American leadership – synergistically complement democracy as constituent elements of the project, but in theoretical terms their contribution is secondary to the key role played by the spirit and institutions of peoples living in constitutional democracies. We then turn from theory to history, examining various stages in the evolution of the liberal internationalist agenda for American foreign policy, showing how in different hands, confronted with varied circumstances, democracy promotion has nonetheless been formulated in a way

that has been the chief preoccupation of Washington when it has been acting in a liberal mode, so that practice has remained true to the theory. This chapter’s aim is to show a unity of theory and practice that gives the liberal project a self-understanding that today it often appears to lack.