Woodrow Wilson's Diplomacy

Point of View by Samuel Wells, associate director, Wilson Center and director, West European Studies

Dec 01, 2006

Much as European leaders today were suspicious about the Bush administration's drive to spread democracy in the Middle East, allied leaders in Europe at the end of World War I were highly skeptical about the new diplomacy of Woodrow Wilson. When it entered World War I in April 1917, the United States did not join the allies, but remained "an associated power."

Wilson went to war to defend U.S. rights as a neutral against German submarine warfare, and to protect its position as a new world power. Equally important was to win a place at the peace table. He mistrusted allied war aims almost as much as those of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and wanted to use the peace negotiations to advance democracy and make government more accountable to the people.

Linking the allies, a series of secret treaties promised economic and territorial advantages to one another if they were victorious. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian leaders made a separate peace with Germany and published the allies' secret treaties. In response, Wilson made a series of speeches laying out his proposals for a new world order. He wanted to end secret alliances, arms races, nationalism, and economic rivalry. He advocated the spread of American institutions such as democratic government, broad suffrage, a capitalist economy, and a liberal bourgeois society to all European societies. Finally, he insisted upon a worldwide peace organization energized by moral force that would ensure stability and an end to war.

By contrast, the principal allied governments wanted a harsh peace that would break up the empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary, make Germany pay the bulk of war costs, and forcibly demilitarize the Rhineland, which was the basis of German industrial strength.

At the Paris peace conference, Wilson made numerous compromises to get his main objective, the creation of the League of Nations. Many in the Republican-controlled Senate opposed significant parts of the treaty. After his major stroke, Wilson was unable to win approval of his peace settlement. While the League was doomed to fail without active U.S. leadership, Wilson's diplomacy sowed the seeds of a movement that would produce the United Nations some 25 years later.


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