Focusing on President Wilson’s 14 Points
August 30, 2014
The Asia Institute
In light of the obscure negotiations concerning trade agreements and the lack of transparency in the diplomatic and security interactions of the United States with other nations, I would like to draw attention to the “Fourteen Points” issued by President Woodrow Wilson on January 8, 1918. At the time, the United States had entered the First World War, dragged into a blood bath between colonial powers which had little, or no, moral import. Although there are many who have criticized Woodrow Wilson for starting the United States on the path to foreign intervention and engaging in an ambiguous war, it is also true that by setting the United States up as the only country that had any explicit goals in the conflict, and making those goals something beyond narrow national interest (read “interests of the ruling class”) Wilson gave the United States a moral authority in international affairs that would last for a century and would be the reason that many were willing to forgive America’s mistakes in the interest of a greater global order.
That authority has been squandered away by the United States, and I mean the educated and privileged Americans who should have known better than to let this shift happen. And now we are seeing the dark consequences: a tendency around the world to assume that the United States has only pursued the most selfish goals both domestically and internationally from its very inception. That collapse of legitimacy can be seen in the profound doubts about the United States in Middle East as it can be seen in the response to the militarization of the military in Ferguson, Missouri.
I do not want to claim that President Wilson was a hero. He was quite simply a politician. I believe that the ideals he held up remain critical to us. The United States can benefit a bit from going back to his writings.
Much of the content of the 14 Points is historically specific. But two of the points are quite valuable to us today:
Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.
There should be no secret treaties or agreements that are no open for the world to see. We should not have any international agreements concerning trade deals, intelligence sharing, diplomatic or security cooperation, or alliances, that are not out there in the open for everyone to see. Certain actions may be secret, but the rules and agreements themselves must be transparent. That such an idea cannot always be achieve is a reality. That the ideal should be strived for is the only way to raise ourselves above the ugly aspects of our nature. World War One was a result of secret treaties, and the current crisis today is also the result of secret treaties, most of which we can only guess at.
Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.
Armaments should be reduced to the needs of domestic safety is a profound statement. Again, we should not assume that such a posture is easy to achieve, but merely to state that such a reduction could be a goal is profound. If we think about the conflicts in East Asia between nations over territories, it is so obvious, and yet completely off the table, that a commitment to a reduction in the use of the military should be the first step towards resolution. An American president made such a statement and in a sense it is still American policy, just waiting for us to brush off the dust and use it again.