From Woodrow Wilson to Donald Trump: An American century | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 11.11.2018
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From Woodrow Wilson to Donald Trump: An American century

When US troops began fighting in World War I, it decided the outcome of the conflict. It lead to President Woodrow Wilson's foundation of a liberal world order under US leadership — which Trump is now destroying.

On January 8, 1918, US President Woodrow Wilson stood before the two chambers of the US Congress and presented his Fourteen Points, a set of now-famous principles which outlined the US war aims in Europe and the Middle East.

Most importantly, they sketched a restructuring of the world order, in which the right of peoples to self-determination would be the guiding principle. Not only that: Wilson called for free trade, an end to secret diplomacy and the creation of a League of Nations.

In Wilson's principles, presented in the final year of World War I, the outline of the liberal world order eventually created under American leadership after World War II was already visible. It was a world order that would prevail as more and more countries chose to follow America's lead. Only now does it seem to be threatened — by another US president.

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Rejecting the foundations of US foreign policy

The current occupant of the White House, President Donald Trump, is one of a kind. Over the last century there hasn't been a single American head of state who would have questioned the foundations of US foreign policy as fundamentally as the 45th president.

There have, of course, always been isolationist forces in the United States. Wilson failed to convince his domestic audience of his ideas for an international framework for peace. But the rejection of his Fourteen Points program came from an isolationist Congress — not the White House, which is why Wilson is still seen as having paved the way for American internationalism. Until its controversial entry into World War I, the United States had traditionally tried to stay out of international conflicts, especially in Europe.

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The Big Four of the Allies chat while gathering in Versailles for the Treaty of Versailles

Wilson (right) would push for the formation of the League of Nations in 1920, though the US would never join up

Wilson: Cooperative foreign policy

The horrors of the Great War led Wilson to conclude that the US should try to implement a multilateral foreign policy based on cooperation. This is also apparent in his much-quoted address to Congress in 1917 leading up to the declaration of war against Germany, in which Wilson emphasized that "the world must be made safe for democracy."

Wilson is often misquoted as having said that the United States must make the world safe for democracy — a small but significant difference. Wilson did not believe the US could do this alone, but that it was a job for the entire world, under American leadership.

His plan for a League of Nations would provide the framework for this cooperative, international political organization. Wilson wanted to create an organization in which action could be taken only if all the members agreed — so every nation would effectively have a right of veto. The fact that the League of Nations lasted just under three decades — and that the US itself never joined — shows just how controversial Wilson's idea was.

Trump: Unilateral decisions

Since Trump's inauguration in January 2017, the US has already pulled out of numerous treaties sanctioned by the United Nations and has withdrawn from several UN organizations. John Cooper, professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin, has written several books about Woodrow Wilson. He believes Trump can rightly be seen as the antithesis of Wilson because of his nationalistic approach.

"[Trump] is a repudiation of 100 years of internationalism. He just wants to go it alone in the world, throw his weight around and make unilateral decisions based upon his whims," said Cooper.

It's not just their attitude to the international role of the US that makes Trump and Wilson polar opposites. Their views on immigration — then, as now, a fiercely debated topic — could not be more different.

Wilson took a clear stand against the anti-immigrant sentiment that arose in the US during World War I, directed toward war refugees from Europe in particular. When the US Congress passed a law in 1917 that limited immigration, Wilson vetoed it. Congress, however, overruled the veto with a two-thirds majority — an indication of the strength of anti-immigrant feeling at the time.

'Wilson hated demagogues'

Here, too, parallels with the present day are obvious. Instead of confronting rampant xenophobia, Trump has been fueling it since the first day of his candidacy. And he hasn't just been all talk — he has used the full power of his office to split up families at the border and deport undocumented immigrants. He also wants to restrict legal immigration to the US, and reduce the number of refugees the country takes in to a historic low.

It's still too soon to judge how Trump's confrontation with the politics of internationalism will end. However, with nearly two years of his presidency behind us, Cooper has seen enough to know that Wilson "would view Trump with horror and alarm. […] Trump just wants to wants to roil things up — and Wilson absolutely hated demagogues."

That, in itself, is a key difference between the two US presidents at either end of a century.

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