WOODROW WILSON is a tip-of-the-tongue name in foreign policy circles these days, largely because the members of the Bush administration are seen as revamped Wilsonians. Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, in his recent book "Statecraft," identifies them as such, citing their belief in the transformative power of the United States and its role as an example and their conviction that divine providence guides their work -- with the profound difference, Ross notes, that Wilson "believed fervently in collective security and international law," which would limit national sovereignty and also "constitute a practical and a moral inhibition on the use of force."
Similarly, Council on Foreign Relations fellow Walter Russell Mead contends, in "Power, Terror, Peace, and War," that the new claque of Wilsonians, neoconservatives who have dominated Republican foreign-policy debates in recent years, have "radically restructured the Wilsonian agenda" and that the secular shapers of progressive internationalism have lost out to evangelicals and other fundamentalists, who argue "that only a much more aggressive pursuit of American ideological values can deal with the security threats we now face" and promote "specifically Christian rather than liberal secular humanist values in foreign policy."
The persistence of this blend of idealism and religious ideology in politics -- along with a belief in American exceptionalism and its accompanying missionary outlook -- is a recurring theme in Ted Widmer's "Ark of the Liberties." "In many ways," he asserts, "we still live in Wilson's world." Whereas Wilson "is often given credit for inventing a new way of thinking about U.S. foreign policy, it is probably more accurate to say that he tapped into old feelings that had never entirely disappeared." (Those feelings went against the isolationism of his time: Wilson's post-World War I idea of a coalition of the willing was the League of Nations, but Congress balked at U.S. membership.) "Ark of the Liberties" is in part a search for the roots of those Wilsonian impulses, which Widmer traces to pre-Revolutionary days, and in part a summary of the foreign-policy orientation of administrations from the country's creation to the present, often as evidenced in officials' speechifying. The gamut of American history, from George Washington's farewell address (in which he argued for a foreign policy of neutrality) to nation-building in Iraq, is on display.
The title "Ark of the Liberties" is taken from a passage in Herman Melville's "White-Jacket" that also refers to Americans as "chosen people" and holds that "God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race." Linking Melville's phrase with Noah's ark, the ark of the covenant and the first ship to arrive in Maryland, the Ark and Dove, Widmer suggests that the conceptual terrain "has always been interpreted by Americans as a voyage on behalf of all humanity," that in essence "it is a voyage in search of freedom . . . so that we can make its coordinates known to the rest of mankind."
In this historical endeavor, Widmer finds "a glorious arc" (he was a foreign-policy speechwriter for the Clinton White House; whether homonyms were encouraged is unknown) reaching from the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address to Wilson's Fourteen Points (which included a suggestion to adjust colonial claims in the Versailles negotiations, giving equal weight in sovereignty questions to the populace affected) to President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's 1941 Atlantic Charter (among its calls: economic cooperation, curtailment of force and the right of people to choose their form of government) to the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
These broad strokes are raised in Widmer's preface, in which he also addresses the manifold definitions of "liberty," a word ubiquitous enough "as to be nearly without meaning, ranging freely across the spectrum of political expression" left to right -- not to mention that during the Civil War Northerners construed it as freedom from restraint (pertaining to slaves) while Southerners interpreted it as freedom from interference (in their way of life). He also states up front his intent to avoid the "twin pitfalls of extreme defensiveness and extreme criticism." In other words, this will be a centrist account, eschewing positions held by "superpatriots" and "America-haters" (although both seem to be straw men).