Niebuhr, Kuyper, and Foggy Bottom
Specifically, "[he] developed his thinking about intervention in foreign countries in a manner consistent with the way he balanced historical contradictions the country had already faced in international politics." And, as would be the case after America entered World War I, Wilson was guided in his actions vis-à-vis Mexico by the belief—in Magee's characterization—that "a righteous cause would have unintended righteous, and providential, consequences."
Magee also emphasizes that Wilson's foreign policy was highly personalized. Wilson made no Niebuhrian distinction between "moral man" and "immoral society." Rather, Wilson tended to personalize all human problems, including those of international politics. To Wilson, the crisis in Mexico, like the First World War a short time later, "were just personal human problems writ large." While this logic made sense to Wilson, Magee goes on to point out that by personalizing foreign policy and cloaking it in the language of morality he generated "a greater hatred of his policies" than would have been the case had his foreign policy been grounded in more traditional considerations of national interest.
Following the traumatic loss of Wilson's wife, Ellen, in August 1914—the same month that saw the start of The Great War—Wilson's penchant to personalize the actions of nation states intensified, and he became, in Magee's words, "even more invested in his personal mission to create a better world." At the war's onset, Wilson believed that American neutrality was the best way to broker a just and peaceful world. Drawing upon his Reformed worldview, Wilson believed that the United States was divinely chosen, in his own words, to be the "mediating nation of the world." With the sinking of the Lusitania, and with it the loss of 128 American lives, Wilson's focus shifted from protecting American neutrality to direct participation in a righteous war. At stake, Magee writes, was "a final war, a new system, a better covenant between the nations. . . . The providential time had come to make a better world."
The rest of the story is well known. America entered the war in April of 1917 and nineteen months later an armistice was signed. Determined to transcend the balance of power politics that had defined nation-state relations for nearly three hundred years, Wilson seized the moment of victory and embraced his Fourteen Points and the League of Nations as the foundation for a new world order grounded in the principles of universal love and justice. He believed, Magee writes, that this would be the fulfillment of God's divine purpose for history. But it was not to be. Wilson ignored and alienated a Congressional leadership who turned against him and defeated the League treaty. At the same time, Wilson's political crusade took a terrible toll on his own body as he suffered several serious strokes and near mental collapse. Wilson left the White House in 1920 a man broken in mind as well as spirit.
Magee concludes that the tragedy of Woodrow Wilson "had more to do with Jerusalem than Athens. It was a tragedy of faith." And so it was. The lesson of Woodrow Wilson's presidency is not that Jerusalem has nothing to say to Athens in the realm of international politics; rather, it is that good intentions inspired by misguided theology can lead to disastrous foreign policy consequences.
The antidote to idealism of the Wilsonian sort is a deep knowledge of the contours of history, a keen understanding of the moral ambiguities that delimit human action in the "meanwhile" in which we live, and a commitment to honing the virtue of prudence in defining the purposes to which we direct national power. In short, Reinhold Niebuhr is not a bad place to start after all.