But American foreign policy is always a coalition affair. As I wrote in my book Special Providence, Wilsonians are one of four schools that have contended to shape American foreign policy since the eighteenth century. Hamiltonians want to organize American foreign policy around a powerful national government closely linked to the worlds of finance and international trade. Wilsonians want to build a world order based on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Jacksonian populists are suspicious of big business and of Wilsonian crusades but want a strong military and populist economic programs. Jeffersonians want to limit American commitments and engagement overseas. (A fifth school, of which Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, was a leading proponent, defined the U.S. national interest around the preservation of slavery.) Hamiltonians and Wilsonians largely dominated American foreign-policy making after the Cold War, but Obama began to reintroduce some Jeffersonian ideas about restraint, and after the Libyan misadventure, his preference for that approach clearly strengthened. Trump, who hung a portrait of President Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, sought to build a nationalist coalition of Jacksonians and Jeffersonians against the globalist coalition of Hamiltonians and Wilsonians that had been ascendant since World War II.
Even as the Biden administration steers American foreign policy away from the nationalism of the Trump period, it will need to re-adjust the balance between the Wilsonian approach and the ideas of the other schools in light of changed political conditions at home and abroad. Similar adjustments have been made in the past. In the first hopeful years of the postwar era, Wilsonians such as Eleanor Roosevelt wanted the Truman administration to make support of the UN its highest priority. Harry Truman and his team soon saw that opposing the Soviet Union was most important and began to lay the foundations for the Cold War and containment. The shift was wrenching, and Truman only just managed to extract a lukewarm endorsement from Roosevelt during the hard-fought 1948 election. But a critical mass of Wilsonian Democrats accepted the logic that defeating Stalinist communism was an end that justified the questionable means that fighting the Cold War would require. Biden can learn from this example. Saving the planet from a climate catastrophe and building a coalition to counter China are causes that many Wilsonians will agree both require and justify a certain lack of scrupulosity when it comes to the choice of both allies and tactics.
The Biden administration can also make use of other techniques that past presidents have used to gain the support of Wilsonians. One is to pressure weak countries well within Washington’s sphere of influence to introduce various hot-button reforms. Another is to offer at least the appearance of support for inspiring initiatives that have little prospect of success. As a group, Wilsonians are accustomed to honorable failure and will often support politicians based on their (presumed) noble intentions without demanding too much in the way of success.
There are other, less Machiavellian ways to keep Wilsonians engaged. Even as the ultimate goals of Wilsonian policy become less achievable, there are particular issues on which intelligent and focused American policy can produce results that Wilsonians will like. International cooperation to make money laundering more difficult and to eliminate tax havens is one area where progress is possible. Concern for international public health will likely stay strong for some years after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended. Promoting education for underserved groups in foreign countries—women, ethnic and religious minorities, the poor—is one of the best ways to build a better world, and many governments that reject the overall Wilsonian ideal can accept outside support for such efforts in their territory as long as these are not linked to an explicit political agenda.
For now, the United States and the world are in something of a Wilsonian recession. But nothing in politics lasts forever, and hope is a hard thing to kill. The Wilsonian vision is too deeply implanted in American political culture, and the values to which it speaks have too much global appeal, to write its obituary just yet.