The twentieth century was an age of massive conceits, devised by ideologues who entertained heady dreams of bending history to suit their will. In the end, colossal fascist and Marxist ambitions produced not Utopia but Auschwitz and the Gulag. Modern man’s effort to replace the one true God in whom he had lost faith with a god of his own devising produced only carnage and suffering. The consort of hubris was catastrophe. If there is one lesson that deserves to be drawn from the bloodstained decades stretching from 1914 to 1989, surely that is it. Americans contributed mightily to the destruction of these false gods. In the course of doing so, various architects of US policy, beginning with President Woodrow Wilson, nourished their own heady dreams, hardly less ambitious than those of the Marxist and fascist true believers whom they resembled in spirit. . . . What were the essential elements of Wilson’s vision? At its core, it sought a world remade in America’s image and therefore permanently at peace. This was true when Wilson first articulated that vision and remains true today. . . . God Himself willed the universal embrace of American principles. Of this, the president was certain. This certainty – about history and about the role of the United States in bringing history to its predetermined destination – was an article of faith, central to the unfolding drama about to commence with the hitherto unimaginable: America’s entry into Europe’s stalemated war. Indeed, for Wilson himself, possessed of a deep-seated aversion to armaments, militarism, and killing, only the certainty that he was acting as a divine agent, that America’s mission was a providential one, could justify his decision in the spring of 1917 to intervene. America’s purpose was as unambiguous as it was immense: to ‘make the world itself at last free’ (Wilson, 1917). For Wilson, reflecting a longstanding but then still vigorous American tradition, the resort to arms could for the United States never be more than an expedient, a temporary measure reluctantly employed, not a permanent expression of the nation’s character. Our own day has seen the revival of Wilsonian ambitions and Wilsonian certainty, this time, however, combined with a pronounced affinity for the sword. With the end of the Cold War, the constraints that once held American ideologues in check fell away. Meanwhile, in more than a few quarters, America’s unprecedented military ascendancy, a by-product of victory in the Cold War, raised the alluring prospect that here at last was the instrument that would enable
the United States to fulfil its providential mission. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, Wilson’s truest disciple, launched that revival, reasserting for the United States the ‘power to begin the world over again’. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton, schooled by Reagan’s success against the Soviet Union and with the American electorate, elaborated on the theme. . . . Then, in the present decade, following the catastrophe of 11 September 2001, George W. Bush – who as a candidate had promised to restore humility to US policy – revealed his true colors, becoming in the eyes of his admirers ‘the most Wilsonian president since Wilson himself ’ (Kaplan, 2003). The Bush administration’s National Security Strategy of the United States of America, issued one year after the 9/11 attacks, testified eloquently to this Wilsonian revival. . . . Bush’s national security strategy and his other sweeping post-9/11 statements (frequently laced with references to presidential insights into God’s purpose) strike some observers as uniquely presumptuous. Arguably presumptuous, they are anything but unique. As Henry Kissinger observed in 1994, ‘whenever America has faced the task of constructing a new world order, it has returned in one way or another to Woodrow Wilson’s precepts’ (Kissinger, 1994: 54). The shattering events of September 2001 challenged the Bush administration to build just such a new order, and it turned instinctively to Wilson. Indeed, the administration’s response demonstrates how little the unprecedented attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon affected the assumptions underlying US foreign policy; the terrorists succeeded only in reinvigorating the conviction that destiny summons the United States, the one true universal nation, to raise up a universal civilization based on American norms. ‘America did not change on September 11’, Robert Kagan has rightly observed. ‘It only became more itself.’ Becoming more themselves, Americans persisted in the project in which they had been engaged not only ‘over the past decade, but for the better part of the past six decades, and, one might even say, for the better part of the past four centuries.’ According to Kagan, the aim of that project from the outset was mastery: ‘It is an objective fact that Americans have been expanding their power and influence in ever-widening arcs since even before they founded their own independent nation’ (Kagan, 2003: 85-86). In short, when it comes to ends, little of the thinking that informs this new Wilsonian moment qualifies as genuinely new. Whether credited to Reagan, Clinton and the younger Bush – or, alternatively and perhaps more aptly, to the collapse of communism, the spurious New Economy of the 1990s, and the rise of al-Qaida – the fin-de-siècle Wilsonian revival simply represents the full flowering of ideological claims asserted and reasserted by American statesmen throughout most of the last century.1 What is new and what deserves far more attention than it has received is the means by which Americans today aim to achieve those ends. The key point is this: at the end of the Cold War, Americans said yes to military power. The skepticism about arms and armies that informed the original Wilsonian vision, indeed, that pervaded the American experiment from its founding, vanished. Political leaders, liberals and conservatives alike, became enamoured with military might.