Seven Debates over the Fourteen Points
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Ph.D. in History, Academic Director of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member
In his analysis of Wilsonianism, Immanuel Wallerstein, the eminent 20th-centu¬ry analyst of world systems, draws attention to its following features: “Wilsoni¬anism was based on classical liberal presuppositions. It was universalist, claim¬ing that its precepts applied equally everywhere. It assumed that everyone acted on the basis of rational self-interest and that therefore everyone in the long run was reasonable. Hence peaceful and reformist practice was plausible. It placed great emphasis on legality and on form.” Wallerstein identifies three fundamen¬tal principles of Wilsonianism: universalism (openness), rationalism and legal determinism (normativity).
One can agree with Wallerstein in his appraisal of Woodrow Wilson’s ideas as highly traditional and even somehow “old fashioned” for Western political thought. For Wallerstein, the main merit and innovation of Wilsonianism is that the traditional foundations of liberalism are applicable not only to individuals within a state, but also to the state itself. He thus brought the classical liberal construction to its logical conclusion. After the Fourteen Points were presented to the world, all the followers of the Wilsonian tradition had to do was to clari¬fy, specify and apply Wilson’s general approaches to specific situations, which is precisely what they did for the better part of the previous century.
On the other hand, the Soviet (and then the Russian) tradition of analyzing the Fourteen Points focuses not so much on the elements of continuity as it does on the what is innovative about the document. Wilson’s ideology is associated with the dawn of Pax Americana, and the Fourteen Points are seen as Washington’s first bid for global leadership in the 20th century. The American challenge was addressed both to the traditional diplomacy of the great European powers and, albeit to a lesser degree, to Lenin’s revolutionary foreign policy doctrine of the Decree on Peace. The rise and fall of Wilsonianism and the liberal world order was thus associated with the rise and fall of American hegemony. This also de¬termines the attitude to the future of the liberal world order: the post-American world should by definition be a post-liberal and post-Wilsonian world.
Let us have a look at just how justified each of these approaches is.
In his analysis of Wilsonianism, Immanuel Wallerstein, the eminent 20th-century analyst of world systems, draws attention to its following features: “Wilsonianism was based on classical liberal presuppositions. It was universalist, claiming that its precepts applied equally everywhere. It assumed that everyone acted on the basis of rational self-interest and that therefore everyone in the long run was reasonable. Hence peaceful and reformist practice was plausible. It placed great emphasis on legality and on form.” Wallerstein identifies three fundamental principles of Wilsonianism: universalism (openness), rationalism and legal determinism (normativity).
One can agree with Wallerstein in his appraisal of Woodrow Wilson’s ideas as highly traditional and even somehow “old fashioned” for Western political thought. For Wallerstein, the main merit and innovation of Wilsonianism is that the traditional foundations of liberalism are applicable not only to individuals within a state, but also to the state itself. He thus brought the classical liberal construction to its logical conclusion. After the Fourteen Points were presented to the world, all the followers of the Wilsonian tradition had to do was to clarify, specify and apply Wilson’s general approaches to specific situations, which is precisely what they did for the better part of the previous century.
On the other hand, the Soviet (and then the Russian) tradition of analyzing the Fourteen Points focuses not so much on the elements of continuity as it does on the what is innovative about the document. Wilson’s ideology is associated with the dawn of Pax Americana, and the Fourteen Points are seen as Washington’s first bid for global leadership in the 20th century. The American challenge was addressed both to the traditional diplomacy of the great European powers and, albeit to a lesser degree, to Lenin’s revolutionary foreign policy doctrine of the Decree on Peace. The rise and fall of Wilsonianism and the liberal world order was thus associated with the rise and fall of American hegemony. This also determines the attitude to the future of the liberal world order: the post-American world should by definition be a post-liberal and post-Wilsonian world.
Let us have a look at just how justified each of these approaches is.
Wilsonianism: the Rationale for Pax Americana?
False Conflict: Universalism and Identity
There is no doubt that Wilson’s Fourteen Points were in line with the strategic interests of the United States following the First World War. It is no coincidence that the leaders of Great Britain and France reacted to the Fourteen Points unenthusiastically, to put it mildly. Incidentally, Wilson is credited with coining the famous phrase “America First!” which he used during his 1916 election campaign, precisely 100 years before Donald Trump successfully did the same. Throughout his life, Wilson was a consistent American nationalist, and he felt the nationalist wave in Europe. This is why he tries in his Fourteen Points to reconcile his own deeply held universalism with the growing particularism in Europe  . The universalism of the Fourteen Points was intended for the victors of the First World War, while particularism was the lot of the vanquished. But Wilson’s universalism implied additional responsibilities as well as additional rights — first and foremost, to ensure the existence of what would later be generally referred to as global commons.
There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that Wilson was both disappointed and irritated when he came up against the short-sighted and selfish position of his European allies. However, the central idea of Wilson’s foreign policy program (the creation of the League of Nations) was ultimately rejected in Washington, and not in the capitals of the great European powers. Instead of setting about the construction of a new world order, the United States preferred to sit in isolation for nearly two decades. This circumstance alone makes one question the close association often drawn between the liberal world order of the 20th century and U.S. foreign policy.
The United States no doubt played a crucial role in the creation of the modern system of international relations and institutions in the second half of the 20th century. However, the principles of this system were laid long before Wilson’s speech and the United States’ entry into the circle of great powers. Bold attempts to reconcile universalism and particularism were made during the Enlightenment in Europe. Many of the ideas voiced by Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points (especially those concerning openness) were very much in tune with the rhetoric of the British strategies of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. And the principle of openness of the international system had gained a lot of support in Germany by the beginning of the 20th century.
In the most general terms, Wilson’s worldview was in tune with the sentiments felt by any rising power that required greater access to resources and opportunities already enjoyed by others  .
And, on the contrary, the liberal world order was — and still is — seen as a threat in countries whose geopolitical heyday is behind them and who are struggling to preserve the positions they had acquired in the international system. This general pattern needs to be elaborated with regard to specific situations: the same country can both be in favor and against individual dimensions of the liberal world order.
Thus, the Pax Americana of the second half of the 20th century can be seen as an individual case of the selective use of liberal principles by a country on the rise. The United States took maximum advantage of the opportunities that came with American hegemony in the liberal space after the Second World War. However, when implementing their foreign policy strategy, the U.S. leaders had no problems neglecting rationality, normativity and openness whenever they saw fit.
Now the relative weight of the United States is in decline, all the more so because not all Americans fit into the framework of the liberal world order that President Woodrow Wilson envisioned 100 years ago. It is unlikely that Wilson would be impressed by the protectionist initiatives of Donald Trump, the focus on bilateral trade deals to the detriment of multilateral negotiations, or the announcement that the United States is withdrawing from UNESCO. The fragile balance between universalism and particularism has shifted decisively toward the latter, and a significant portion of American society clearly supports this. This further confirms the obvious conclusion that American hegemony and the liberal world order are historically interconnected phenomena, but by no means are they synonymous.
Wilsonianism: a Continuation of Liberal Ideology?
If the traditional Soviet understanding of Wilson’s Fourteen Points as a declaration of American imperialism needs refinement, then the widespread Western view that Wilsonianism and the accompanying world order are inseparable from liberal ideology needs to be clarified. The relationship between the liberal world order and liberalism as a political ideology is not always clear cut. Historically, the foundation of this world order was indeed created primarily by liberal Western democracies. These countries aside, there simply was no one else who could be at the table discussing the Fourteen Points after the First World War — with the possible exception of communist Russia.
But the creation clearly outgrew its creators: having become more or less universal, the liberal world order stopped being the exclusive property of the West. To a greater or lesser extent, its principles were adopted by non-liberal regimes — from Pinochet-era Chile to Deng Xiaoping's China. The overwhelming majority of non-Western countries (India, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam and Nigeria) are still trying hard to integrate themselves into this world order, rightly believing that in the framework of this system they are in receipt of the most favorable conditions for their economic development.
The fourth wave of democratization, on which high hopes were pinned at the turn of the 21st century, did not assert the supremacy of liberal values in East Asia, much less in the Middle East. Russia and the majority of the other post-Soviet states never turned into mature liberal democracies of the Western mould. On the contrary, they are moving further and further away from it in their political evolution. However, as far as one can tell, the partial or complete denial of liberal values is not accompanied with the categorical rejection of the liberal world order.
It is possible that, for Woodrow Wilson, the Fourteen Points were indeed the product of his deeply held convictions about how human society should be arranged from top to bottom, and that he did not separate American liberalism from its international incarnation. In reality, however, the liberal world order turned out to be broader in scope, more attractive and more global than liberalism as a political ideology. For the simple reason that it is not so much an ideological platform as it is a technical instrument for organizing the global economic and, to some extent, political space.
As a technical instrument, the liberal world order mutatis mutandis is acceptable not only for the Anglo-Saxon world, but also for the social democratic world of continental Europe, the authoritarian regimes of East Asia and even the theocratic Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf.
New participants in the system always require large-scale reforms to its internal structure — access to key decisions, restructuring existing institutions, changing priorities, etc. At the very least, we are talking about changing the balance of power in those international structures that to one extent or another govern the world (the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, etc.). This is natural: after all, the new participants in the system were not part of its creation in the middle of the last century. New players also aspire to create parallel, duplicative structures for managing the world order, especially when the old structures are not ready to change.
On the other hand, it is common for almost all new players to demand that the old ones acknowledge “pluralism of values,” that is, to finally sever the implied connection between liberalism as a political ideology and liberalism as the basis of the world order. For those new players, the emphasis on promoting political democratization on a global scale is giving way to the priority of sustainable socioeconomic development around the world. Of course, new players also demonstrate their own brand of particularism, hence not only the constant references to their own civilizational and cultural uniqueness, but also the habitual, though sometimes hypocritical, focus on sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
In any event, we are still talking about reform and not attempts to completely destroy the old and create a new (alternative) post-liberal world order. If circumstances align in a favorable way, then pawns could transform into queens. But the rules of the game are changing at a very slow pace, even more evident in our dynamic age. A typical example is the gradual transition of the global economic agenda from the G7/G8 format to the G20: the number of participants may have expanded, but the general principles of the group’s work are basically the same. Consequently, the crisis of liberalism does not necessarily mean the concomitant crisis of the liberal world order. In this sense, Wilsonianism, albeit in a significantly modified form, continues to be relevant in the post-liberal world.
Wilsonianism: a Manifesto of Economic Determinism?
One Year after the U.S. Presidential Elections
At the heart of Woodrow Wilson’s views on world politics lay the principle of rationality — as it was understood then by the well-educated white elite of the United States in the light of American history, American values, U.S. foreign policy record and American interests. The main role in the international system that was supposed to be created after the suicidal passions and destructive madness of the First World War should have been played exclusively by comprehensible, quantifiable and predictable factors. In the ideal world of Woodrow Wilson, foreign policy is not determined by the mystical revelations of a religious prophet, nor by the whims of an all-powerful despot, nor by the mythologemes of the national mission, which are precisely what led to the unprecedented catastrophe of 1914–1918.
Rational foreign policy, according to Wilson, is a common denominator of numerous and multidirectional group interests — political, economic, social and regional — which together form the national interests of a country. Although this rationalism did come from Wilson’s political practice in the United States, its origins can be found in the very same European Enlightenment of the 18th century. Incidentally, it is this feature of Wilson’s political ideology that separated his version of the world order from the Bolsheviks’ more than anything else. While the president of the United States was looking to balance group interests in international relations, the Russian revolutionaries sought to present international relations after 1917 as a manifestation of the irreconcilable struggle between two social antagonists — the global bourgeoisie and the global proletariat.
It is well known that, in the early 20th century, rationalism was often perceived as a hierarchy of individual, group and national economic interests. This kind of economic determinism was characteristic of both liberal thought and the Marxist paradigm that opposes it.
President Wilson can probably be blamed for harbouring the naïve hope that removing trade barriers and restrictions would not only allow the United States to enter markets that had previously been closed to it, but would also lead to a rationalization of world politics, pushing political, national, ethnic, regional and other contradictions to the background. The events that followed clearly demonstrated just how wrong this view was. The Second World War was not based on the clash of economic interests, neither was the Cold War. Rather, an irreconcilable ideological conflict was at the root of both. The presumably pragmatic elites were dethroned by, or joined the ranks of, political populism. Rapid economic growth in the second half of the 20th century and the accompanying lowering of barriers did not lead to universal peace and security. And the beginning of the 21st century was marked by a growth in the significance of non-economic factors in international relations that hardly anyone could have predicted — from radical nationalism to religious fundamentalism.
Nevertheless, one hundred years after the Fourteen Points, the economic foundation of global politics has still not been destroyed. Today, the inextricable link between development and security is even more evident than it was in 1918, and problems of incomplete socioeconomic modernization are often behind the unexpected bursts of irrationality and archaism in the foreign policies of individual states.
We perceive economic rationality differently than our ancestors did one hundred years ago. However, the economic basis of rationality has not gone anywhere and is unlikely to go anywhere in the foreseeable future.
But the coalitions of those who are for and those who are against global universalism have changed, and in a very significant way. The old Marxist theory that “the workers have no fatherland” had not panned out by the outbreak of the First World War. Today, it is the blue collar workers who form the main social base of nationalism and right-wing populism. On the other hand, the attitude of business to globalization is more than ambiguous and is determined by economic sector, size, geographical location and a number of other factors. An even more complex alignment of forces is developing in civil society.
After a certain period of disorder and indecision, stable alliances of contemporary Wilsonianists and anti-Wilsonianists may appear. However, it is extremely difficult to imagine a single global rupture given the unprecedented pluralism of interests, aspirations and identities at the group and individual levels. In our opinion, we are more likely to see a scenario in which situational alliances are constantly readjusted around a single problem. We will all support Wilsonianism in certain situations and oppose it in others.
If we were to try and identify the main social base of the liberal world order, then it would obviously be the global middle class  . The middle class, especially the part of the middle class that is associated with the new economy, sees more opportunities than threats in liberal globalization.
Thus, the erosion of the middle class in the West that we have been witnessing for several decades now, should be regarded as one of the most serious long-term threats to Wilsonian ideas.
Wilsonianism: Making International Law Absolute?
Like many U.S. presidents, Woodrow Wilson received legal education, practicing law at the start of his career. It is thus unsurprising that the Fourteen Points were to have a legal and regulatory basis for the world order. The ideal of Wilsonianism is to have universal norms and standards for all players. Norms can be mandatory or voluntary, fixed in contracts or based on precedent. They can be enforced by international organizations, multilateral regimes or directly in relations among individual states. But norms have to exist, and they have to be the same for everyone. There should be no games without rules or different sets of rules for individual regions. Wilson went even further. He was also deeply involved in the development of an institutional basis for the new world order — the League of Nations. The attack on the plans of the 28th President of the United States came from his fellow countrymen on Capitol Hill, who refused to share even a portion of the United States’ sovereignty with a little-understood international organization. Since then, the struggle for the rule of law in global politics has had mixed success.
There has been a progressive decline in manageability of the global system since the end of the Cold War. The decline of international organizations (starting with the United Nations, but also the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the G7 and other basic liberal instruments of global governance), the erosion of the fundamental principles of international public law, the increase in the number of armed conflicts and the inability of the global community to deal with them. All this is seen as a sign that there are deep problems in the modern world order — problems that cannot, and probably will not, be solved within the framework of the liberal paradigm.
However, it would hardly be correct to assert categorically that instability, violence and anarchy are growing steadily in the modern world. The tendencies of modern world development are contradictory to say the least. For example, the pace of nuclear proliferation has not sped up in recent decades, but has in fact slowed down. On the whole, there has been a decline in the number of wars being fought around the world (including civil wars) since the turn of the century. At the same time, the intensity of these conflicts has increased.
In any case, the second decade of the 21st century does not appear to be fundamentally more dangerous or conflict-ridden than many of the preceding decades in world history.
Similarly, the stability of the modern system of international law cannot be overestimated. Of course, the norms of this law are broken from time to time, including by leading Western powers. But they were circumvented before as well.
Nevertheless, the current system of legal regulation of global politics, economics and finance is, on the whole, superior and more effective than it was 20 — and certainly 50 — years ago.
There are no significant forces in the world today that would deny the system of international legal norms that has developed over the past one hundred years in principle. Disputes about how to interpret legal norms and the direction in which they should develop will naturally continue, but rejecting legal universalism is out of the question. Nothing suggests that the global legal space will split in the near future regional or bloc-based, “Western” and “non-Western,” “liberal” and “post-liberal” international legal systems. They are just as likely to appear as a new, post-liberal multiplication table or post-liberal higher mathematics.
What is more, over the past decades, many areas that were once solely the subject of domestic legislation, or were not regulated at all, have become the subject of international legal regulation. In this sense, we can state that Wilsonianism is still relevant, although Woodrow Wilson’s hopes for the unconditional supremacy of legal norms in global politics are still far from being implemented in practice.
Wilsonianism: the Ideology of the “Golden Billion”?
Are Norms Liberal?
The principles of openness and universalism are the most important basis of the Fourteen Points and all subsequent projects of the liberal world order. Wilson’s political philosophy was unequivocally and unambiguously against isolation, protectionism, closed spheres of influence and any other forms of limiting international cooperation. If Woodrow Wilson were alive today, he would undoubtedly be one of the prophets and leaders of globalization. After all, the liberal world order proceeds from the premise that global governability is not only desirable, but is also achievable in practice, and that increasing the level of governability of the global system meets the fundamental interests of all responsible participants in this system. That is, the advantages of an open international system are directly derived from the rationality of all its participants.
Now the principle of openness has come under fierce criticism from almost all directions: in developed countries, developing countries, Europe and the United States; from political populists and high-brow intellectuals, right- and left-wing radicals, nationalist and environmentalist groups. Protectionist, nationalist and anti-globalist sentiment is growing. Brexit referendum and the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the United States, the apparent strengthening of right-wing radicals in continental Europe — all this can be seen as links in a single chain.
Critics of an open world order argue that, given the uneven development of the modern world, the very principles of openness and universalism inevitably consolidate the privileged position that the golden billion enjoys in relation to the rest of the world.
And this goes for both economic and socio-cultural specifics, as the leaders impose their goals, values, expectations and way of life onto individuals, social groups, states and entire continents. Thus, Woodrow Wilson and his successors are seen as supporters of global unification and enemies of individuality and group identity.
Are these accusations justified? The conflict between universalism and individuality is unsubstantiated if universalism is understood as a set of common (universal) laws, rules, hierarchies and models of interaction among the individual elements of the system. No system — biological or social — can exist without such a set of laws, since they make up its structure. Applied to contemporary international relations, the function of a structure is carried out by the existing universal norms of international law, established regimes and traditions, and the network of bilateral and multilateral international relations and regional and global organizations headed by the United Nations.
It is another matter entirely if universalism is understood as the global unification of modus vivendi and the system of normative precepts. That is, if it is understood as the rejection of self-identification by any group, including a national group, in exchange for “global” self-identification in the spirit of Jacques Attali or George Soros (but not Woodrow Wilson).
Such universalism, if it can be fully realized, would lead to a sharp decrease in the complexity of global society as a whole, and the international system in particular. Reducing complexity would, in turn, dramatically increase systemic risks and challenges. A field cultivated by humans is a far less stable and sustainable system than a natural forest.
The explosion of ethno-cultural, regional, national, religious and other forms of group identities that is unfolding before our very eyes is in fact nothing more than a natural reaction of the system to threats associated with the tendency to reduce the complexity and diversity of its elements. A living cell does not want to turn into a dead crystal, not even a crystal with perfect edges.
As for the economy, the experience of recent decades demonstrated that it is precisely the openness of the liberal world order that creates global social mobility that gives hundreds of millions of people in Asia, Latin America and Africa the opportunity to become part of the middle class.
It is the liberal world order that has allowed dozens of countries to dramatically increase their status in the global system. The rejection of the established mechanisms of the international circulation of goods, capital, technologies and social practices will not bridge the gap between the golden billion and the remaining six. On the contrary, the existing disparities will only grow.
Paradoxically, it is within the ranks of the notorious golden billion that active resistance to globalization and universalism is starting to grow. Rich aging Western societies are trying to protect themselves from the advance of the non-Western world — from growing migration flows, cheap goods and services, the import of terrorism and instability. The walls between developed and developing countries have been built by the former. The main threat to Wilsonianism today does not stem from the continued expansion of the West, but more likely from the fact that Western countries are closing in on themselves, and from the transition to a model of Western self-sufficiency at the expense of further global integration.
It is clear that regionalism as such does not necessarily supplant or run counter to globalization. It can be a form of globalization, since not all decisions need to be made at the global level.
There is no reason to believe that structures such as the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should dissolve into broader regional regimes sooner or later. On the contrary, regional integration associations are capable of performing the functions of laboratories where mechanisms and rules will be developed and tested for subsequent application on a global scale.
However, closing the participants of regional associations off in the shell that is their structures and institutions and creating exclusive regional orders will no doubt be one of the main challenges for the liberal international system. In this sense, the outright refusal of the Donald Trump administration to take part in Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic integration projects could, paradoxically, prove to speed up rather than slow down economic globalization.
Wilsonianism: a Step Backward Compared to the Concert of Europe?
The period of European and world history between the First and Second World Wars (1918–1939) is often compared with the period of the Concert of Europe that preceded it (1815–1913). A common opinion is that the Congress of Vienna that took place in the early 20th century created a more reliable, stable and secure international system than the Paris Peace Conference a century later. The argument is that artificial Wilsonian construct did not give the world long-term stability and prosperity and turned out to be a clear regression compared to the conservative but practical and reliable concept of European multipolarity.
It is hardly correct to place the blame on Wilson for the many imperfections of the Versailles system which preordained its catastrophic end just two decades later. The U.S. political elite did not support the president’s plans — and not because Americans had some genetic predisposition to isolationism but due to tactical mistakes by Woodrow Wilson and his closest advisor colonel Edward M. House (they simply forgot to invite key Republican senators to Paris to secure the backing of Congress leaders). President Wilson merely turned out to be unskillful at domestic politics. His speeches in small provincial towns and at way-stations across the United States in the aftermath of the Paris Conference only proved that he lacked appeal to ordinary Americans. European allies, Britain and France, were not ready to accept Wilsonianism, even in an abridged form, seeing it as idle talk and the height of American naïveté. And Russia and Germany were not active participants of the Versailles process at all. However, there is a place for a comparison of the two paradigms of the world order, even if they are separated by more than a century.
What is the main difference between the views of Foreign Minister of the Austrian Empire Klemens von Metternich and President of the United States Woodrow Wilson? Von Metternich believed that the foundation of European and world peace was the balance of power, maintaining a stable equilibrium of rival powers of similar strength and influence. This is why he consistently opposed any plans to unify Germany, as well as those to unify France and Belgium. For him, cooperation was, on the whole, subordinated to rivalry.
Woodrow Wilson did not see the world as a static multipolar balance of power, but rather as a dynamic integrative model in which the United States was the lowest common denominator. He really expected that Washington could control London and Paris through their debts to the United States. A quarter of a century later, Wilson’s successor, 32nd U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, cognizant of the geopolitical vulnerability of traditional Wilsonianism sought to revise and broaden it (the Four Global Policemen plan of 1941 reinvented as the plan to establish the United Nations and the Bretton Woods system in 1944–45 involving the Soviet Union and China as key participants of both structures). The goal of both Wilson and Roosevelt was to consolidate the global core and stabilize the periphery.
Cooperation was therefore more important than rivalry, which in balance was sacrificed to the process of progressive rapprochement of the elements that make up the “core.”
This, of course, does not mean that Wilson was an idealist or a cosmopolitan — there is no reason to doubt his nationalism. Wilson’s ideal was a model that is very much like the construct of the unipolar world led by the United States at the turn of the 21st century. But it would be wrong to liken the 28th President of the United States to the 43rd President of the United States (George W. Bush). Woodrow Wilson believed in the value of multipolar diplomacy and the importance of achieving compromise and, unlike George W. Bush, he was prepared in principle to delegate a part of U.S. sovereignty to a universal international organization. In other words, Wilson’s unipolarity included compromises, concessions and compensations to other participants in the international system, something that was entirely absent from U.S. policy at the beginning of the 21st century.
If we were to point to a country today whose positions correspond closely with the initial tenets of Wilsonianism, then it is not the United States, but China. When, in early 2017, President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping delivered his keynote address in Davos, Switzerland, in defense of free trade and against a new wave of protectionism, he was talking specifically about preserving and strengthening the core of the global financial and economic system. It is telling that he did not talk about a multipolar world in the classic sense of the word, or about the balance of power in the world.
With all the obvious shortcomings and imperfections of Wilsoniansim, it still looks more relevant than the Concert of Europe of the 19th century.
We have been talking of multipolarity for two decades, but it has yet to materialize. There is too much of an imbalance among the potential participants in the global concert of the 21st century. They are too asymmetrical in their relations with each other. The foundations of the traditional hierarchy in world politics have been undermined too much. And non-state actors have acquired too large a role in world affairs.
Wilson’s international model compares to the model of the Concert of Europe just in the same way that a cumbersome, spluttering and clunky car of the early 20th century compared to an elegant, reliable and familiar horse-drawn carriage. The horse-drawn carriage was better than the clumsy car in all respects, with the sole exception that it had exhausted all possibilities for its future development by the beginning of the 20th century.
Wilsoniansim: a Relic of a Bygone Era?
The Inevitable, Weird World
This brief overview of the debate about the fate of the liberal world order leads us to the conclusion that it is still too early to confine the ideas of the 28th President of the United States to the museum of delusional human thought. But it would be equally erroneous to write off Wilsonianism as a kind of dogma. It would seem that the world order of the 21st century will have little in common with the liberal theories of the previous century or its foreign policy practices. Let us try to determine the most likely rules of this new game, even in the most general sense, starting from the principles of Wilsonianism.
Will the Emerging System Be Rational?
In the liberal paradigm, rationality is not a sophisticated multi-stage combination played by sovereign rulers. Rather, it is a balanced representation of different and often divergent group interests in the international arena. Based on this understanding of rationality, we can assume that the new system will be more rational than the current one. Not because future leaders will be wiser, more democratic or perspicacious than today’s leaders, but because the multifaceted group interests will find greater opportunities to be realized in international life directly, bypassing the bottleneck of the foreign policy apparatus.
What is more, states will be increasingly forced to join coalitions with these non-state actors, since foreign policy will rapidly lose its effectiveness if these partners are not involved.
Of course, states will not cede their role as the main players in global politics in the foreseeable future. The gap between long-term development interests of the global population and the tactical interests of the national elites and societies will persist, thus legitimizing the role of states as intermediaries in the communication between the national and global levels.
But the monopoly of this intermediation will become a thing of the past. In the context of growing interdependence, the information and communication revolution, unprecedented social stratification and the diversity of identities, the interaction between the different layers of society (individual, local, regional, national and global) will be carried out in a variety of forms, many of which the state is not even able to grasp, much less control. So the state will continue to desperately defend its old forts and ravelins, while society continues to stubbornly master new continents and oceans.
Will the System Be Normative?
The experience of recent years shows that it is becoming increasingly difficult for state leaders to seek negotiations and legally binding agreements. Legislative bodies are reluctant to take on new obligations and drag their heels when it comes to ratifying agreements.
Populists everywhere are strengthening their positions. And direct appeals to voters through referendums often bring about unexpected and unwanted results.
It would seem that the regulatory and legal framework of global politics will develop along the lines of increasing the number of non-legally binding commitments that states (and non-state actors) take upon themselves voluntarily. For example, on the whole, the United States complies with the provisions of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Decisions made by the G20 do not impose any legal obligations on the member countries. Their implementation is monitored by the so-called peer review process, which is purely consultative in nature. The United States pulling out of the Paris Agreement has not stopped individual U.S. cities from voluntarily taking on the commitments to reduce emissions, trying in their own way to keep the spirit of the agreement alive.
Looking to the future, we can assume that the system of rigid international organizations, with its clearly fixed set of rights and obligations with regard to its members, will gradually be supplemented with — and eventually replaced by — a system of more flexible international regimes that regulate certain aspects of international life. Participants in global politics and the global economy will be able to select a set of regimes that suits them best, a set that corresponds to their own specific features, interests and opportunities. This is more or less how things work in the modern economy, where workers can often choose their own schedule, workload and workplace.
Obviously, we should look for a new balance between particularism and universalism here too. The question of the future of the liberal world order is ultimately a question of selecting the unchallenged and unalienable obligations of the participants in global politics. It is a complicated but solvable issue.
In any case, this kind of evolution does not necessarily mean diluting the legal foundations of the international system. In the emerging world order, the significance of political reputation and the responsibility of states will increase, and any violation of obligations undertaken (even voluntarily) will inevitably bring about negative consequences for the guilty parties. The cost of having a bad record will grow. This is due, in particular, to the new and never-before-seen level of transparency of global politics, in which foreign policy decisions or even announced intentions quickly become public knowledge. It is also due to the erosion of international hierarchies, which in the past required unconditional solidarity with the in-group and did not leave much room for moral and ethical choice.
It is not difficult to predict that we will see more and more examples of conscious and targeted smear campaigns in the future, much like the games being played right now against national currencies on financial markets.
Will the World System Be More Open for New Players as Well as More Transparent?
Yes, in the sense that it will not rely on the hegemony of a single power, whether it be the United States or China. This does not mean that the new world order will not have its own hierarchies. They will be unavoidable, but those will be different hierarchies, built around specific international issues or areas of cooperation. For example, while the United States is much stronger and more influential than Canada in almost every respect, it is Canada (alongside Russia) and not the Unites States that acts as the superpower in the Arctic Council. On the other hand, despite the incompatibility of Russia and South Korea in terms of size and potential, Seoul occupies a higher position in the global trade hierarchy than Moscow, with a foreign trade turnover currently double that of Russia’s. The presence of multiple parallel hierarchies increases the number of points of entry into the system and boosts its status within the system itself, making it more pluralistic, stable and universal.
None of this means that global politics will inevitably develop along Wilsonian lines in the 21st century. Just like after the First World War, humankind now has the opportunity to choose a specific balance between universalism and particularism, between hard and soft power, between globalization and regionalization, between free trade and protectionism, between law and morality, and between interdependence and sovereignty.
There is no need to make a single life-changing choice here. There will be countless different situational and often inconsistent decisions that will be taken on a daily and even hourly basis by a great number of participants in global politics. The totality of these decisions will lead the world either to greater unity, or to deeper separation. The very strength of the global system will be determined by the flexibility of its norms and mechanisms, which are the essence of an open world order.
First published in the Center for Strategic Research Report “Woodrow Wilson’s Fourtheen Points100 Years On”.
1. This, by the way, is the fundamental difference between Wilson’s “moderate” universalism and the radical universalism of the Bolsheviks. Bolshevik universalism did not attempt to reconcile itself with national particularism, declaring war on it instead.
2. Interestingly, the Fourteen Points were not banned in Soviet Russia. On the contrary, they were widely published. Despite the incompatible positions, Wilson’s universalism could not but impress the universalist Bolsheviks.
3. We are talking, of course, about a middle class that is not dependent on the state.
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