Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points and the Liberal World Order

On January 8th 1918, United States President Woodrow Wilson delivered his 14 Points Speech, which outlined his personal vision for the post-World War I conduct of international relations. The main theory applied to understand the pre-1914 conduct of international relations was Realism; this theory expected the Great Powers to compete against each other to maintain their standing in the World Order. The Anglo-German naval arms race, in which Germany sought to challenge Britain’s naval dominance, is a good example of behaviour realists would expect. Realism’s opposite theory is Liberalism, which holds that competition between states is not inevitable and can be avoided by building greater interdependence between nations.

Wilson’s vision called for Liberalism to be the basis of the post-World War I Order,  calling for, amongst other points, a General Association of Nations and adoption of free trade policies, both of which would create greater interdependence between states. Neither Britain nor France at this point shared Wilson’s liberal values, being unwilling to give up their great power status or their empires. In addition, the US Senate failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and join the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, as the Senate wished to avoid any commitment for the USA to engage in future foreign conflicts. Neither Democrat Wilson nor the hard-line Republicans (the Senate Majority) proved willing to compromise over what role the USA should play in the League, resulting in continuing US isolation.

During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt’s United States returned to Wilson’s vision with the declaration of the United Nations in 1942, the General Association of Nations that Wilson had called for. This time France and Britain accepted the new liberal world order, recognizing its legitimacy and joining the United Nations. In addition, in contrast to World War I, both nations were desperate for US assistance against Germany and aid in post-war reconstruction; therefore, both were induced into accepting Wilson’s vision. Efforts towards free trade followed with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947, which lowered tariffs. However, efforts to create a global trade body were unsuccessful until 1991, when the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was formed. Arguably by the turn of the millennium, the liberal world order that Wilson had envisaged in his 14 Points had largely been formed.

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One of the Eleven Founding Fathers of Europe, Robert Schuman arrives at the first meeting of the European Parliamentary Assembly in 1958.

The liberal world order is often credited to individuals, namely Wilson who envisaged it and Roosevelt who helped create the United Nations. Yet the creation of this order was never an individual effort; Wilson’s attempts to implement it individually resulted in failure. The implementation of the European Economic Community (EEC),  was the result of the work of 11 so-called  Founding Fathers of Europe rather than any one individual. For example, it took three of them, French Political Adviser Jean Monnet, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, to overcome decades of German-French rivalry and ensure the membership of Europe’s two powerhouses in the EEC. Compromises were required for the formation of the EEC, something Wilson proved unable to countenance. For example, initial attempts at European political integration through the EEC were dropped to concentrate on economic integration. The creation of the European Single Market still took 36 years of incremental progress and compromise to achieve, although it was worthwhile, producing the most integrated economic area in the world.

Although the liberal world order is often thought of as an American world order, it only came to fruition when America under Franklin Roosevelt decided to implement it; this liberal world order continues to be underpinned by American power. Whilst the USA deserves credit, the liberal world order should not be perceived as a solely American venture. The United Nations required the support of the four other 1940s Great Powers, Britain, France, China and Russia (who along with the USA make up the Permanent Five on the Security Council), along with the other minor Allies of World War II to come into being. In addition, the support of each of the Permanent Five is required for the UN Security Council to take actions with legitimacy. The First Gulf War in 1991 commanded significant international support because it was backed by the Permanent Five and more broadly, the UN.

In contrast, the 2003 US-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq lacked this support, with the UN General Secretary at the time, Kofi Annan, openly stating “From our point of view and the UN charter point of view, it was illegal.” As a result, the USA received only limited international assistance with post-war stabilization and reconstruction in Iraq, creating the conditions for insurrection and revolt, the first of which began just one year after the war in 2004.  In addition, the backlash the USA received for its unilateral invasion of Iraq, both domestically and internationally, held the USA back from upholding international norms in later situations (for example, in 2013 when the Syrian Regime crossed President Barrack Obama’s red line of using chemical weapons against its own people). With limited multilateral and UN support for military action and desire to avoid a similar backlash to the 2003  Iraq invasion, President Barrack Obama failed to act. This points to the liberal international order not being solely an American order. Additionally, it emphasizes that the liberal order can only succeed with multilateral support.

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The three saviours, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron, with other World Leaders at the 2017 G7 Summit in Italy.

In 1918,Wilson was heralded as the individual who would bring major changes to World Order. Today,  Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel, and Emmanuel Macron are all cast as potential saviours of the Liberal World Order from threats such as Donald Trump and increasing nationalism around the world. Each is also expected to magically progress the liberal world order to its next stage, for example, with greater European defense integration.  Yet, if the implementation of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points demonstrates anything, it is that progress needs to be multilaterally supported, and requires both compromise and time.  Wilson failed in each of these respects in 1918, delaying the creation of liberal world order for 20 years. If these historical lessons are not remembered today, the world may wait just as long before liberal world order progresses forward again.

Mark Siraut is a U1 Joint Honors Student majoring in History and Political Science, and he is excited to have published his debut article at MIR Online. 

Edited by Andrew Figueiredo