The specter of Woodrow Wilson loomed large in the nation's living memorial to the 28th President during a meeting sponsored by the Conflict Prevention Project on June 14. Promoting a recently released book entitled Wilson’s Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century, authors Robert MacNamara, former Secretary of Defense to Presidents Kennedy, and Johnson and James Blight, Brown University Professor, discussed the genesis of the book and offered an action plan for creating a more peaceful 21st Century.

Wilson’s Vision of Cooperation

As noted by Wilson Center Director Lee Hamilton, Wilson's Ghost focuses not on Wilson's life or the history of his time, but on the inspiration we can gain and the lessons we can learn from his attempt to ensure that the destruction and killing of World War I would not be repeated. “Woodrow Wilson is best known to us, as Wilson's Ghost highlights, as a president who articulated a powerful vision of international cooperation and peace. Yet Wilson also had a remarkable vision of cooperation on a more local level -- cooperation among policymakers and scholars. That's why the mission of the Wilson Center is to bring together scholars and policymakers in the confident hope that from their dialogue better understanding and better policy will emerge.”

The Great Illusion of Peace

Moderator Hattie Babbitt, a Wilson Public Policy Scholar Fellow, began the discussion by highlighting the erroneous assumption that globalization will discourage war. “The authors remind us that right before World War I, many people thought that because of the economic interdependence among the major nations, war would be deterred because it would be economically unproductive – or if it did occur, it would be quickly terminated. As the Carnegie study tells us, this “great illusion “ was followed by a century of mass destruction that dwarfed all previous centuries. “Beware,” says Wilson’s ghost. Current global economic interdependence does not remove the drivers of war.”

An Agenda for the 21st Century

Offering what they termed a “radical agenda,” Secretary McNamara and Professor Blight suggested how to prevent the emergence and spread of war in the 21st century. Among their recommendations were restructuring and strengthening the United Nations, integrating China and Russia more deeply into the international system, and slashing nuclear arsenals. They argued that sustainable peace couldn’t be maintained without a moral commitment to peace and a strong international organization to enforce it.

Two earlier books by the authors, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Viet Nam in 1995 and Argument without End: In Search of Answers to the Viet Nam Tragedy in 1999, suggest that miscalculations and ill-informed decision by American and Vietnamese leaders prolonged the conflict. Similarly, in Wilson’s Ghost, they argue that a similar lack of empathy for, and understanding of what motivates leaders of other nations in the 21st century can have even more disastrous results.

Rather than suggest that all war should be abolished, Secretary MacNamara asked the audience whether it was possible for the United States, as the strongest nation in the world, to develop foreign and defense policies that encompass a moralistic impulse. In addition the United States should refrain from using military force unilaterally—with only defense of the homeland as the exception. “We wouldn’t have been in Vietnam if we had followed this belief,” he said. However, during the question and answer session Secretary MacNamara acknowledged that there might be extraordinary cases when the United States might intervene unilaterally to stop gross human rights violations. Still, he advocated for strengthening the capacity of the United Nations and the Security Council to respond to these types of humanitarian crises.

Those Who Ignore History Are Bound To Repeat It

Blight noted that the birth of Wilson’s Ghost occurred while the authors were on tour promoting the release of Argument Without End. The escalation of the Kosovo crisis caused them to pause and ask why they had been spending so much time on history if the lessons were not learned, he said. He noted that feelings of despair and lamenting one tragedy after another had replaced the optimistic mood accompanying the new century. “Are we at the beginning of a new century of bloody violence?” he asked. Developing better relations with Russia and China, reducing ethnic violence and eliminating nuclear weapons, is an agenda for the 21st Century and the only way to “escape the typhoon of violence, in the words of Wilson,” he added.

This type of argument is unlikely to be well received in Washington, suggested commentator American University Professor Philip Brenner. The historical tendency of the United States to envision itself as a frontier, individualistic nation does not incline it toward multilateralism, he said. “The problem is that the U.S. is no longer George Washington’s fledgling country and most other nations do not view us as isolationist, but rather hegemonic.” The agenda put forth by Wilson’s Ghost might also go further to address other international injustices such as human rights violations and global inequality, he added.