What we demand in this war, therefore, is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression. All the peoples of the world are in effect partners in this interest, and for our own part we see very clearly that unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us. The program of the world's peace, therefore, is our program.
Woodrow Wilson, 1918
Peace is only in the interest of satisfied powers.
Hans Morgenthau, 1956
Wilsonian idealism is the term of passive rebuke frequently applied to the system of foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson, U.S. president during WWI. Also known as political idealism, this strand of thought has been grossly distorted by overuse over the course of the past 50 years; originally coined as a shot at Wilson for his responsibility in the breakdown of the balance of power that set the stage for WWII, political idealism has since been expounded into a system of thought that provides a polar opposite to political realism (and, with that, a more specific definition of the latter).
Woodrow Wilson believed that war was made inevitable only by the assumption that war was inevitable, that the balance of power was a system of making war rather than averting it. Wilson believed that a program of collective security was the end-all means of achieving peace. He believed that every nation of the world could join together to secure the peace of the world, because war was always in the interest of a minority that could be overcome by the majority of "peace-loving" nations. The balance of power had, afterall, done little more than ensure a perpetual wavering between war and peace, the occasional but certain bloodletting-unto-stalemate from time to time. This seemed to Wilson an imperfect system, which he sought to improve upon at the end of The Great War.
The great imperfection of this nomenclature, on the other hand, is that the "ideal" is by definition unattainable; that is, to call Wilson a "political idealist" is to call him a fool. This term is made all the more tragic and misleading by the fact that Wilson clearly perceived a growing trend of globalization, a strengthening of the interconnectedness of all states; he understood (as our dear political realism failed to understand, and is only now beginning to digest) that no nation really was wholly free to make its own decisions, that no (reasonable) nation really was wholly autonomous, but that it was rather part of a greater system, a system that influenced its decisions and curtailed the freedom of its foreign policy. What Wilson envisioned was nothing more than a sort of supernational society, the individuals dependant upon and loyal to each other; why do we call this impossible, why do we call this idealism when we see it so smoothly practiced every day?
To call Wilson's political mindset "idealism" is to claim, unequivocally, that he was wrong. We do not know this (his plans were never carried out), and for that reason I wince to hear the term. This pill is not made any easier to swallow when I realize that these same people throwing around this ugly term of snide self-assuredness are the same people who are still singing the virtues of "political realism" and the balance of power system, the "right" and "true" branch of political "science", which has quietly retreated into the anonymous background of the world as we know it today.
They say Mr. Wilson got his collective security in the foundation of the League of Nations, and that the second World War was the result of the realization of his failed ideal. But Mr. Wilson disagreed, and died spreading the omenous word of the world to come, a world without the "ideal," in which war was inevitable rather than impossible:
You are betrayed. You fought for something you did not get. And the glories of the armies and the navies of the United States are gone like a dream in the night. And there ensues upon it the nightmare of dread, and it will come some time in the vengeful providence of God another war in which not a few hundred thousand will have to die, but many millions.