The Fourteen Points at 100: Woodrow Wilson's legacy scorned: Roberto Rabel recalls the expression in 1918 of a presidential vision very different to that now emanating from Washington.

AuthorRabel, Roberto

United States President Donald Trump is known neither for his attention to history nor for his sense of irony. It is thus unlikely he noticed that the first anniversary of his presidency coincided closely with the centenary of a very different vision for the international role of the United States than that embodied in his 'America First' ethos.

On 8 January 1918, only months after reluctantly leading his country into the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson outlined to a joint session of Congress his so-called Fourteen Points as the blueprint for a peace settlement that would transcend traditional balance of power politics. Wilson's declaration marked the symbolic moment when the United States first put its power and prestige behind the quest for a liberal world order.

Wilson was a flawed president. As a leader of the Progressive movement, he tried to redress the excesses of contemporary American capitalism and championed domestic reforms such as labour rights, a federal income tax and regulation of large corporations to foster greater competition. Yet he was also a white Southerner who did not rise above the prejudices of his age and sanctioned the segregation of federal agencies. Today, some Americans clamour for removal of statues of Wilson and deletion of his name from prestigious institutions. Wilson's negative legacies deserve denunciation; but, if there is a positive legacy of his presidency, the Fourteen Points lie at its heart with respect to diplomacy They have been an enduring touchstone for aligning American national interests and the exercise of its preponderant power with liberal internationalist principles.

When announced in 1918, the Fourteen Points were in essence an appeal for a 'New Diplomacy' to address the failings of traditional European diplomacy. The first five points concerned general principles on which a peaceful, stable post-war order should be built: 'open covenants of peace, openly arrived at' instead of the secret diplomacy that had drawn Europe into war; freedom of the seas; free trade; reduction of armaments; and impartial adjustment of colonial claims taking due account of the interests of the affected peoples. The following eight points related to the resolution of territorial issues among the belligerent states through equitable application of the principle of national self-determination. The final point's call for 'a general association of nations' to provide collective security for all would lead...

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