An Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove: the Principles that Defined the American Age
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Ivan N. Timofeev

PhD in Political Science
MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia
Department of Political Theory
Associate Professor;
Russian International Affairs Council
Director General;
Valdai Discussion Club
Program Director


SPIN-RSCI: 3517-3084
ORCID: 0000-0003-1676-2221
ResearcherID (WoS): ABF-5625-2021
Scopus AuthorID: 35293701300


E-mail: [email protected]
Address: 76 Vernadskogo Prospect, Moscow 119454, Russia

In 1918, President of the United States Woodrow Wilson presented a draft peace treaty to Congress aimed at putting an end to four years of bloodshed caused by the First World War. The document differed from the spirit and principles of the peace accords concluded in the history of international relations. Previous peace agreements would normally enumerate the conditions to be met by the sides in order to end the war. At the same time, every peace treaty was perceived as a respite, which was to be replaced, sooner or later, by another war. Europe and the West in general perceived war as an inevitable evil: allies could turn on one another overnight, but each conflict would inevitably end in a truce, until the next war.

This cycle had perpetuated in Europe for centuries. Any peace treaty, and the very paradigm of diplomacy, implied bargaining, maximizing the benefits of war or minimizing its damage, but not a fight on war itself. In this sense, Wilson’s Fourteen Points stood out in that they set forth the founding principles of international relations that were supposed to put an end to war as a phenom-enon, making it impossible. The most important principles were: abandoning secret diplomacy; reducing arms; emphasizing interests of societies in resolving international disputes; creating a supranational institution that was capable of playing the role of sovereign in the international arena; stopping the war of all against all; and guaranteeing the sovereignty of all states, regardless of their power and capacity.

Wilson’s project, as well as his 1917 idea of peace without victory, both of which were eagerly embraced by Congress, met with outward scepticism in Europe. This attitude was summed up by French writer Anatole France: “A peace without victory is bread without leaven, jugged hare without wine, mullet without capers, cèpes without garlic, love without quarrels, a camel without a hump, night without a moon, a chimney without smoke, a town without a brothel, pork without salt, a pearl without a hole, a rose without scent, a republic without dilapidations, a leg of mutton without a knuckle, a cat without fur, chitterlings without mustard — in a word, ’tis an insipid thing. Is it possible when there are so many sorts of peace to choose from, those Socialists, with such an abundant assortment before them, should go and put their hands on a peace without victory, a ramshackle peace, to employ your own original and powerful expression? Nay, what do I say, not even a limping, halting, hobbling peace, but a legless peace which will go and squat one buttock on each party, a disgusting, foetid, ignominious, excrementitious, fistulous, hemorrhoidal peace, or in one single word, a peace without victory.” [1] The Entente leaders — Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando did not hide their irritation with Wilson’s ideas. Their position could be understood: having sacrificed millions of their citizens in the First World War, they were hardly inclined to end it all in the spirit of peace-making idealism, all the more so that the Russian Emperor Nicholas II, one of the most prominent peacemakers of the early 20th century, had been cynically executed by the Bolsheviks and his country was being ravaged by civil war. Wilson’s principles were in tune with the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 initiated by Nicholas II, which had failed to save Europe and Russia from war. The European scepticism was also based on the suspicion that Wilson’s ideas primarily benefited the United States, especially with regard to free trade. As a result, the text of the Treaty of Versailles significantly differed from the Fourteen Points, and the United States Congress blocked the country’s accession to the League of Nations, the fundamental international institution set up after First World War and largely reflected Wilson’s ideology.

A little over 20 years later, a new world war broke out. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, two military-political blocs were on the brink of mutual annihilation. The realists and conservatives, who criticized Wilson and were convinced that a new war was inevitable, could now celebrate the victory of their worldview. However, in the hundred years since the publication of Wilson’s principles, attempts are still made to put war under control. This concerns, in particular, free trade, global governance institutions and arms reduction. In this respect, the world managed to achieve significant results: unprecedented globalization, the surprising vitality of the United Nations (albeit with a very limited mandate), the practices of peacekeeping and peace enforcement, and the precedents of large-scale elimination of entire classes of weapons. Nevertheless, in the age of information technology, the freedom of communication and informational transparency of borders, the world is once again balancing on a tightrope. The anarchy of international relations has not disappeared, the number of conflicts is growing, the United Nations is falling apart, arsenals are replenished regularly, arms control regimes are breaking down, defense spending is growing and witch hunts are being carried out. The spirit of the age once again brings preventing war on the agenda. Wilson’s heritage is no less relevant today than it was a century ago.

Let us try to analyze the political philosophy of the Fourteen Points. Wilson’s text is more than just a list of conditions. Its author, one of the few intellectuals among the presidents of the United States, was well versed in political theory and embedded much deeper meaning in his points than merely an opportunistic desire to achieve a beneficial peace. Wilson’s project is based on a deep intellectual tradition that goes back to the political philosophy of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, and reflects a system of liberal approaches to the transformation of international relations.

At the heart of the liberal tradition is the belief in the human mind’s unlimited ability to transform social reality. Rationality is a key cure for social ailments; it creates an orderly society based on a rational legal system in which each individual has the opportunity for self-realization. Reason and law, which are embodied in the social contract and the state system, are contrasted with the Hobbesian anarchy and the war of all against all. The social contract implements justice, an opportunity for everyone to be free while at the same time being equal to others before the law. Justice is guaranteed by the sovereign state acting on behalf of the nation like a rational clockwork mechanism.

Liberals extrapolate this interpretation to international relations. Wilson stands on the shoulders of William Penn, Charles-Irenee Castel de Saint-Pierre, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. According to the liberals, if anarchy and the war of all against all can be taken under control within a state, then this can be done in international relations. This requires rational international laws and a supranational body to act as the sovereign and force states to comply with international standards. The case could also be helped by what is now known as democratization: there are far fewer incentives for war in countries where the people are able to influence the authorities, because societies usually have no interest in the scourge of war, which is unleashed by the elites. Finally, free trade must put an end to wars, as the rationality of trade and economic interdependence outweighs the irrationality of war.

Liberal idealism was criticized by everyone. Socialists accused Wilson of hypocrisy and attempting to impose the interests of the exploiting classes on the world. Conservatives found fault with the excessive arrogance displayed in the principles and their author’s belief in the boundless possibilities of the human mind. The main critic, however, proved the harsh reality of the 20th century itself. This was especially true of the fourth point, which postulated the reduction of arsenals to a reasonable minimum. Within a relatively short historical period, humanity made a genuine breakthrough in its ability to achieve mutual destruction.

Wilson’s doctrine fell into the trap of man’s dual nature proposed by Augustine of Hippo. Man’s divine nature was more than offset by its devious nature, with its irresistible passion for destruction. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the greatest critics of liberalism in international relations, would subsequently strengthen this thesis, pointing out that the depravity of the human nature was multiplied out of proportion in organized communities such as states. Therefore, only the fear of mutual destruction and unacceptable damage can stop aggression. In the war of all against all, deterrence of the devil requires another devil, and one has to choose the lesser of two evils (which, in the situation with the USSR, was the United States). Fear and uncertainty are the locomotives of international relations. They cannot be controlled by rational means. Humanity is doomed to face the security dilemma and follow the spiral of fear (these concepts emerged after Second World War). Consequently, foreign policy requires more wisdom and experience than reason and rationality.

Still, Wilson was hardly a naïve idealist. For America, his principles proved to be a winning strategy. Every implementation of the key points inevitably played into Washington’s hands, strengthening its role as a global leader. The freedom of navigation, backed by the most powerful navy in the world, turned the United States into the master of the seas. The elimination of economic barriers led to the expansion of American capital, and subsequently to the creation of a U.S.-centric financial system, which has been working and flourishing ever since. Most global companies are American. Financial sanctions imposed by the United States are possible and effective due to the dominance of the dollar. Globalization has brought dividends to many countries, increasing the attractiveness of the American project in their eyes. Reduced arms (in particular, the reduction in the number of battleships) after the First World War was masterfully replaced by new types of weapons (such as aircraft carriers). During the Cold War, the U.S. managed to sign beneficial agreements with the USSR on reducing nuclear and conventional weapons. Reducing conventional weapons eliminated Soviet supremacy in this area, while cutting the number of nuclear missiles reduced the potential of the only state capable of wiping the United States off the face of the Earth. The U.S. managed to turn the principle of sovereign equality to their benefit. This was especially true of the freedom of choice of military alliances. In the post-Soviet period, this principle has been at the heart of NATO’s expansion.

Finally, and most importantly, liberal slogans promoting freedom and progress have turned into a powerful tool of soft power determining America’s moral leadership. Realists, conservatives, and other critics were strong and popular in the United States throughout the 20th century, and they are still influential today. However, this did not prevent the U.S. from using liberalism as an effective ideological tool of their foreign policy. The ideological component played a decisive role in the United States’ victory over the USSR. The most powerful military power in the world fell without a single shot being fired toward U.S. positions.

The centennial of Wilson’s principles is a good occasion for the United States to revise its foreign policy, which obviously needs to be adapted to the rapidly changing conditions. Russia, for its part, needs to draw conclusions from the mistakes and successes of the U.S., which in the 20th century managed to achieve an optimal combination of advancing their national interest and promoting its values around the world.

First published in the Report “Woodrow Wilson’s Fourtheen Points100 Years On”.

1. Cit. ex. Stone, O., Kuznick, P. The Untold Story of the United States. Moscow. Kolibri, 2015, p. 48.