The Failure of Wilsonian Idealism in US Foreign Policy

A discussion of Woodrow Wilson’s rational approach in the pursuit of idealistic foreign policy goals in the interwar years (1919-1938)

Seminar Paper, 2014

12 Pages, Grade: 1.00




Theoretical dimension
1. The “Peace without victory” and the “Fourteen Points of Peace”
2. Wilsonian idealism and liberal internationalism
3. Realpolitik and rationality in decision-making
4. Boundaries and alternatives to rationality

Practical dimension
5. From the mandate system to the annexation system
6. From collective security to collective punishment


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Maintaining world peace after the “war to end all wars” (Knock, 1992) can be regarded as the decisive message of US President Thomas Woodrow Wilson’s speeches on the “Peace without victory” on 22nd January 1917 in front of the Senate and on the “Fourteen Points for Peace” on 8th January 1918 in front of the Congress. Having been highly educated in law (Showerman, 1924: 140) and serving as president of the University of Princeton (1902), governor of New Jersey (1910) as well as President of the United States (1912-1921), Democrat Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was known as a “diplomatist” (Link, 1957) and “peacemaker” (Knock, 1992).

Fuelled by the post-war “excitement of the moment” (McNamara and Blight, 2001) and “feeling[s] of supreme optimism, moral conviction, and idealism” (McNamara and Blight, 2001), Wilson demanded the formation of the League of Nations, an institutional framework that would enforce democratic decision-making outcomes and guarantee the establishment and maintenance of a “peace without victory”.

A peace that sought to eliminate the causes of war with the League of Nations that instead enabled the punishment of Germany (Clements, 1992). A peace with a focus on the idea of self-determination that instead stimulated nationalism (Clements, 1992). A peace that tried to “freeze the status quo” (Clements, 1992) in times of liberal internationalism.

This paper’s thesis is that President Woodrow Wilson’s rational approach in the pursuit of idealistic foreign policy goals produced an indication among other factors of a failure of the mandate system and the system of collective security in the interwar years (1918-1938).

Understanding and evaluating the concept of rationality is a fundamental prerequisite for the analysis of past decision-making processes in policy drafting. Defining decision-making as “an [active] process in which […] a preferred option is selected, […] throughout the policy cycle […] from what to make into a “problem” […] [to] choice in how a policy is implemented” (Parsons, 1995: 245), one can apply rationality to complex social problems in the United States foreign policy-making in the interwar years.

The paper’s discussion of the United States foreign policy is conducted in two dimensions. The theoretical dimension will outline the concept of liberal internationalism and Wilsonian idealism by analyzing his speech of the 22nd January 1917 in front of the Senate and the 18th January 1918 in front of the Congress. It will further define the concept of Realpolitik that expresses ideas of rationality in foreign policy decision-making and present its boundaries and alternatives.

The practical dimension will apply the theoretical groundwork on two incidents: Administration and distribution of pre-war colonies and the idea of collective security.

Theoretical dimension

1. The “Peace without victory” and the “Fourteen Points of Peace”

“Is the present war a struggle for a just and secure peace or only for a new balance of power?” asked President Wilson in his speech “Peace without victory” in front of the Senate on 22 January 1917 (Wilson, 1922: 5).

Knowing that “only a tranquil Europe can be a stable Europe” (Wilson, 1922: 5), he is convinced that “there must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power, not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace” (Wilson, 1922: 5). He aims for “a peace without victory…the very principle of which is equality and a common participation in a common belief” (Wilson, 1922: 5) instead of “entangling alliances” and “humiliation by victors”.

Convinced that “only a peace between equals can last” (Wilson, 1922: 5), Wilson demands all to “unite to act in the same sense and with the same purpose all act in the common interest and are free to live their own lives under a common protection” (Wilson, 1922: 8). To achieve that, he points to securing the freedom of the seas, arms reduction, the removal of economic barriers, self-determination for national groups as well as the establishment of a concert of power to act collectively.

These peace plans were specified in his speech “Fourteen Points of Peace” on 8th January 1918 in front of the Congress primarily aiming to encourage dissension within the German and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and to seize control of the peace process negotiated by the Bolsheviks in Brest-Litovsk (Clements, 1992: 164). Wilson has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his idea of the Fourteen Points in 1919 (Gaines, 2004: 11).

President Woodrow Wilson justifies the entry of the US into the First World War with the intention to correct “violations of right” (Wilson, 1918: 5) and the sustainable creation of safety, sovereignty, justice and fairness. He summarizes this “program of the world’s peace” in fourteen points, primarily addressing territorial, political and economic concepts:

By addressing the political sphere, Wilson demands not only public diplomacy rather than secret agreements (Point 1), but also “absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas outside territorial waters” (Point 2) (Wilson, 1918: 5), reductions of national armaments (Point 4) and a “free, open-minded […] adjustment of all colonial claims” (Point 5) (Wilson, 1918: 6). Certainly, his most significant argument is the formation of an intergovernmental organization, the League of Nations, to guarantee “political independence and territorial integrity” (Point 14) (Wilson, 1918: 7). In addition to the political suggestions, he demands the removal of economic trade barriers to ensure “the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace” (Point 3) (Wilson, 1918: 5).

On the territorial level, Wilson grants Russia “independent determination of her own political development and national policy” (Point 6) (Wilson, 1918: 6) and proposes the restoration of a free and sovereign Belgium (Point 7) and France (Point 8). He further aims for a readjustment of the Italian frontiers (Point 9) and the creation of an independent Poland with access to the sea (Point 13). Based on the principle of self-determination, he assures “autonomous development” (Wilson, 1918: 6) to Austria-Hungary (Point 10) and the Turkish and non-Turkish populations living in the Ottoman Empire (Point 12) as well as the redrawing of the Balkan state borders with Serbia having access to the sea (Point 11).

2. Wilsonian idealism and liberal internationalism

Both of Wilson’s speeches reflect a high degree of idealism, defined as striving for the highest goals with an incurable optimism. Wilsonian idealism is based on altruism and trust in order to collectively pursue the highest goal, a long-term “peace without victory”. This is shown in fundamental principles outlined in the Fourteen Points such as collective security, the acting through an international organization as well as collective disarmament.

The concept of Wilsonian idealism integrates into the construct of liberal internationalism, a dominant political theory in the first paradigm in the study of international relations that began to evolve after the First World War. Liberal internationalism aims to promote the own democratic values abroad and justifies the intervention of democratic states in sovereign state in order to aid in the process of democratization (Rosenberg, 1999: 230). This can be identified in Wilson’s motivation to spread democracy through the Fourteen Points and export American democratic values. It further encourages the development of free trade, global economics and liberal political systems.

However, as Wilson’s speech on the “Fourteen Points for Peace” already reflects through the alternation between precise (“evacuation of Russian territory”) and vague (“adequate guarantees”) formulations, his idealistic goals and the entirely new phenomenon of liberal internationalism stand in a sharp contrast to the prevailing pre-war ideas of nationalism and Realpolitik.

3. Realpolitik and rationality in decision-making

Prior to the First World War, the concept of Realpolitik, defined as “an approach to international relations based on practical self-interest rather than moral considerations” (Cannon, 2009) was dominant in Europe.

Realpolitik assumes rationality in decision-making (also known as rational choice, root method, rational comprehensive method and synoptic policymaking). Values or objectives are clarified distinct from the empirical analysis of alternative politics but often serve as a prerequisite for it (Lindblom, 1959: 86). Policy-formulation is therefore approached through means-ends analysis: First the ends are isolated and then the means to achieve them are identified (Lindblom, 1959: 86). Further, the testing of a “good” policy can be conducted by showing that it displays the most appropriate means to desired ends (Lindblom, 1959: 86). Accordingly, the analysis is very comprehensive, every important factor is taken into account and thus theory is heavily relied upon (Lindblom, 1959: 86).


Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Failure of Wilsonian Idealism in US Foreign Policy
A discussion of Woodrow Wilson’s rational approach in the pursuit of idealistic foreign policy goals in the interwar years (1919-1938)
Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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438 KB
North American History, Treaty of Versailles, Woodrow Wilson, Wilsonian Idealism, Idealism, Charles Lindblom, Rationality, Bounded Rationality, US Foreign Policy, Realpolitik, collective security, League of Nations, mandate system, peace without victory, peace, liberal internationalism, international institutions, US History, interwar years, 1919-1938, Wilson's Fourteen Points, Fourteen Points, interbellum, decision-making, rationality in decision-making
Quote paper
Sarah Winkelmann (Author), 2014, The Failure of Wilsonian Idealism in US Foreign Policy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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