Today [Sunday] marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Woodrow Wilson’s message to Congress asking for a declaration of war against the Central Powers. Thus the Great War began – a conflict that destroyed European civilization and set the stage for the rise of Bolshevism, Nazism, and the death of millions in World War II.
Wilson was the embodiment of the dominant ideological theme of the twentieth century: State-worship. In both the foreign and domestic realms, the great “progressive” President represented the twin aspects of statist ideology: war and the centralization of political authority. And his presidency was emblematic of the key link between these two aspects of the progressive ideology, as Murray Rothbard explained in a 1973 interview with Reason magazine. Every war in American history has been the occasion for a great leap forward in the power of the State to interfere in and regulate every aspect of our lives, he said, and a “huge increase in [government] power came out of World War I,” one that set the pattern up to the present day:
“World War I set both the foreign and the domestic policies for the twentieth century. Woodrow Wilson set the entire pattern for foreign policy from 1917 to the present. There is a total continuity between Wilson, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson and Nixon – the same thing all the way down the line.
“Q: You’d include Kennedy in that?
“A: Yes Kennedy, right. I don’t want to miss anybody. Every president has been inspired by Woodrow Wilson. It was reported that Richard Nixon’s first act when he came into the White House was to hang a picture of Woodrow Wilson in front of his desk. The same influence has held on domestic affairs. As a matter of fact if I had to single out – this is one of my favorites pastimes – the biggest SOB in American history in the sense of evil impact – I think Woodrow Wilson is way, way at the head of the list for many reasons. The permanent direction which Woodrow Wilson set for foreign policy included the permanent collective security concept, which means America has some sort of God-given role to push everybody around everywhere and set up little democratic governments all over the world, and to suppress any kind of revolution against the status quo – that means any kind of change in the status quo either domestic or foreign. In the domestic sphere the corollary was the shift from a relatively laissez-faire economy – corrupted as it was by the Civil War subsidies it was still and all a relatively laissez-faire capitalism – a deliberate shift to in essence a so-called corporate state.”
For a comprehensive analysis of how the triumph of progressivism led to the death and destruction of the Great War, read Rothbard’s “World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals.” Rothbard’s point about the perniciousness of the “collective security” concept – the very basis of US foreign policy in the modern era – is more relevant today than ever. Because the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election has ignited a great debate in the foreign policy community, pitting a platoon of “experts” who uphold the “liberal international order” against the “America first” policy favored by the Trumpians.
Well before Trump arose, the geopolitical picture prefigured the conditions that led to the Great War. The Western victory in the cold war, far from occasioning the abandonment of NATO, motivated the Western powers to expand the alliance to include the former Warsaw Pact nations. The Russians reacted as George Kennan, the author of the anti-Soviet “containment” strategy, predicted they would: with open hostility and an effort to create a buffer zone – Belarus, Ukraine, Hungary, Moldova – between the aggressive West and the Russian heartland. The second cold war was upon us.
This system of rival alliances limns the rivalries that led to the Great War – and the similarities are geographical as well as abstractly geopolitical. The site of this rivalry is in the Balkans, where the Great War broke out when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian ultra-nationalist. Now with the admittance of tiny Montenegro to NATO, we are living in a world where the internal turmoil of that country with a population equal to Albuquerque’s could lead to a confrontation between two nuclear-armed adversaries. Neighboring Ukraine, where a US-sponsored “color revolution” overthrew a pro-Russian government by force, has long been a flashpoint.
The Trump administration came into office vowing to “get along with Russia” – and this is the real issue behind the “Russia-gate” “investigation.” The entire national security bureaucracy, which has a material interest in maintaining our Russophobic foreign policy, reacted like a snake confronted in its lair, lashing out at the President and leaking information from their clandestine surveillance of the President and his advisors.
The entire focus of Trump’s foreign policy – analyzing what is in America’s (alleged) interests, rather than privileging the collective interests of “the West” as if they were identical to our own – is a dire threat to the old Wilsonian internationalist legacy that has dominated US foreign policy in modern times. Trump’s contention that NATO is “obsolete” sent them into paroxysms of fury. And while the Trumpian foreign policy vision, such as it is, doesn’t reject NATO outright, its definition of the “liberal international order” is much narrower than both the progressive internationalists and their neoconservative brethren find acceptable.
Despite considerable opposition from both parties, the Trump administration has already made the first moves to defuse rising tensions with Russia and forestall a 1914-like conflict. Trump has instructed the US military to focus on defeating ISIS rather than overthrowing Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, reversing US policy under the Obama administration: both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley have made public statements affirming this new stance. Assad, backed by Russia, has been in Washington’s crosshairs since George W. Bush’s presidency: here is yet another flashpoint where conflict with Russia has been avoided.
Furthermore, Tillerson is scheduled to travel to Russia for meetings with Putin and other top officials in what could be the prelude to a comprehensive agreement with Moscow over such contentious issues as Ukraine, nuclear arms, and US sanctions. The meeting will take place some time this month.
Prior to Trump taking office, the US was headed straight for a conflict with Russia. The NATO alliance, moving steadily eastward to the very gates of Moscow, had been conducting a two-pronged war: conducting provocative military “exercises” mimicking a a frontal assault on Russian territory while also launching a propaganda war targeting Russia and its allies for “regime change.” The stage was set for another 1914, in which a single small spark somewhere in the Balkans or Eastern Europe could have set off a global conflagration. And America’s “progressives” were – and are – the main agitators for war.
Indeed, Hillary Clinton – assumed by many to be the next President – campaigned on an explicitly anti-Russian platform, calling for a “military response” to the Kremlin’s alleged “interference” in the 2016 election. In the wake of her defeat, her supporters have continued and escalated these hysterics, calling the unproven assertion that Russia intervened in the election in Trump’s favor an “act of war.”
While the US continues to be bogged down in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, the Trump administration’s greatest achievement may be avoiding a conflict that didn’t happen – a feat they are unlikely to get any credit for, but one that is, nevertheless, notable. The issue of our relations with Russia continues to dominate both the domestic and the international arenas, and there’s a good reason for that. The end of the cold war did not eliminate the prospect of a conflict between these two nuclear-armed powers – indeed, in retrospect, it may have increased the chances of a catastrophic collision. If the Trump administration succeeds in eliminating or lessening this possibility – over the loud protests of the War Party – then that is a cause for celebration.
The victory of the West in the cold war put an end to a world divided between two ideologically opposed superpowers – and inaugurated a new global reality, albeit not the one our ruling elites expected and hoped for. The neoconservatives and their liberal internationalist allies assumed we would inherit a unipolar world, in which the US would predominate, but that hasn’t come to pass. Instead, we live in a multi-polar world, where not only Russia but also China, India, Iran, and others yet to emerge are contending for the advancement of their own interests.
In order to defend our legitimate interests while avoiding unnecessary conflicts, America must return to the foreign policy of the Founders, rejecting entangling alliances, abjuring the export of “democracy,” and pursuing a policy of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other nations. This is the path to peace – all others lead to perpetual war.
This is the lesson of World War I – a war that dragged in multiple combatants due to the system of rival alliances. Let’s hope the Trump administration has learned it – because our warlike “progressives” clearly have not.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.