On this date in 1914, in his second annual address to Congress, President Wilson signaled to the world that the significant role that his White House predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, had carved out for the United States as a strong military power was being relinquished. No matter that TR had built up the American Navy and displayed it on a global cruise in 1907, Wilson, at the beginning of World War I, washed his hands of a strong presence abroad.
“We are, indeed,” he said in his message, “a true friend to all nations of the world, because we threaten none, covet the possessions of none, desire the overthrow of none. Our friendship can be accepted and is accepted without reservation, because it is offered in a spirit and for a purpose which no one need ever question or suspect. Therein lies our greatness. We are the champions of peace and of concord.”
The result of Wilson’s naivete was that the United States entered the war too late to have an effect on an Allied victory instead of a mushy armistice, with the resulting peace treaty marred by Wilson’s wishful thinking — embodied in his highfalutin Fourteen Points. Indeed, Wilson got just what he campaigned for, namely, “peace without victory,” an untenable solution to Europe’s woes. Little wonder that the vacuum in exerting power politics resulted in Adolf Hitler’s challenge to world order within two decades.
Like President Obama, Wilson had absolutely no experience in foreign policy. As a university professor, he specialized in political science, a field not too distant from Mr. Obama’s constitutional law professorship.
Both men would win a Nobel Peace Prize because their rhetoric was strong-sounding, just the opposite of TR’s diminution of words in favor of military strength (“Walk softly but carry a big stick”). Recall that TR won a Nobel Prize, too, but it was for action, not rhetoric, by mediating in 1905 in Concord, New Hampshire, an end to the Russo-Japanese War, artfully sticking it to both sides by requiring them to withdraw from disputed territory.
Even after the British luxury liner, the Lusitania, was sunk by German submarines in May 1915, killing more than 1,000 passengers, including Americans, Wilson preferred fatuous comments to sensible action: “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.”
To be sure, American entry into World War II put an end to such nonsense, and the nation became the world leader, utilizing a simple, but powerful strategy, namely, “unconditional surrender” to impose on the Axis powers. Subsequently, with the rise of the Soviet Union as a nuclear threat to world disorder,
American presidents of both parties adhered to the sensible argument of diplomat, George Kennan, to the effect that Soviet force be met with counterforce, eventually leading to the defusing of Soviet aggression. Although President Eisenhower in his “Farewell Address” worried about the growing military-industrial complex in the Cold War, the union ensured both peace and prosperity.
The tragedy of the Obama administration is that it has not only turned its back on the tradition of the United States as the leading nation to promote world order but that it has criticized that legacy, even offering apologies for our history. To Mr. Obama, foreign policy consists of his touring the world, meeting with national leaders, coming home, and interpreting his unctuous, sashaying tour as a tour de force. His guiding light in dealing with adversaries, such as Iran, is concession, so as to effect a deal, no matter that it may not be in the best interests of the United States.
Perhaps worst of all, the insecure Mr. Obama, like Wilson, chose a weak vice president so as not to be upstaged at home and abroad. Wilson was saddled with Thomas R. Marshall of Indiana as his No. 2, best known for his remark: “What this country needs is a really good 5 cent cigar.” Mr. Obama’s veep, Joe Biden, in spite of his long service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been an embarrassment in his travels abroad, with his wayward mouth contributing to his being viewed as the court jester to the Obama administration.
Little wonder that 53 percent of Americans, in a Gallup poll earlier this year, believed that other countries across the world don’t respect Mr. Obama.
• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.