In April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. The United States had been drawn into the war by Germany’s attacks on transatlantic shipping and by America’s justified opposition to a German conquest of Europe. But Wilson reached to articulate a deeper moral meaning of the war. It was a war to “make the world safe for democracy.” It was an ennobling vision.
But what did Wilson actually do to make that vision a reality? Precious little. He put his faith in an international institution—the League of Nations—that proved feckless to promote or defend a democratic world order. He tried to compel Europe to accept principles of self-determination. Europe mostly ignored him, but representatives from the colonized world in attendance at the peace talks in 1919, including Ho Chi Minh, took inspiration, though not in the direction Wilson envisioned. Wilson hectored and lectured the world’s diplomats, who were mostly unimpressed by his talk about a world order organized along classically liberal lines.
Wilson wasn’t wrong to make the defense of democracy a wartime goal or a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. He was ignorant about how to make it happen. He believed that international institutions, public diplomacy, moral suasion, and the soft power of America’s shining example—held aloft by the most explicitly racist and segregationist U.S. president of the 20th century—would be sufficient. He was wrong.
President Joe Biden is scheduled to preside over a Summit of Democracy on December 9-10. Like Wilson, he understands, rightly, that American security is inextricably entwined with the fate of democracy abroad. He understands, as I and other scholars have argued, that the free world is in a competition with authoritarian great powers to define the shape of world order. “We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century,” he said in April. The authoritarians “think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies because it takes too long to get consensus,” but, Biden promised, “Autocrats will not win the future. We will.”