Hew Strachan: 'Bush has gone where Woodrow Wilson did not dare'

From the Arnold Foundation Lecture at Rugby School, by Oxford University's Professor of the History of War
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The Independent Online

In 1914, when the powers of "old" Europe took up arms, they could only guess at the horrors of modern industrialised war. By 1916-17 the United States no longer had the defence of ignorance. None the less, President Wilson, despite his pacifist leanings, embraced war. The possibility of a victory for Germany, militarist and unprincipled as it appeared to be, was unconscionable. "The right," he told the nation on 2 April 1917, "is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts - for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments."

The Wilsonian ideal still provides the rhetorical bedrock for US foreign policy. Self-interest may guide it, but universal values validate it. Superficially, therefore, a straight line runs from Wilson to George Bush.

But there are two key differences. First, Wilson's instincts were multilateralist, as witnessed by his reliance on the League of Nations to deal with the problems his big ideas would throw up. New Europe's current perplexity in its dealings with America derives from its having absorbed a lesson from the United States, on which its author now seems to be renegeing.

Secondly and more specifically, Wilson was more Eurocentric than the global pretensions of the peace conference suggested. Nowhere was this insouciance more pregnant than in the Middle East. Wilson's answers for Palestine and Iraq were to stay well clear of both. Bush's America has gone where Wilson's refused to venture.

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