Reshaping a Broken World

Historian Erez Manela tells Brian about President Woodrow Wilson’s attempts to help build a new Europe, and how his philosophy has shaped U.S. foreign policy for nearly a century.

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Nathan Connolly: To avoid the carnage of another world war, Woodrow Wilson tried to craft a bold new system of global diplomacy.

Brian Balogh: In 2014 I spoke to Harvard historian, Erez Manela about what Wilson envisioned for his League of Nations, and why it ultimately didn’t last.

Erez Manela: Wilson sees the war as evidence that the balance of power arrangement has failed spectacularly and cannot be resuscitated, that cannot in his view be a new order that is again based on balance of power. So then the question becomes for him, what is the alternative to balance of power, and the alternative that he comes up with is what we’ve come to call, I suppose, the League of Nations. And I think that Wilson has in mind a fairly straightforward parallel between the League of Nations as he sees it and the US Constitution as it was formed in the late 18th century. Because keep in mind that, and Wilson knows this well, at the time of the Constitutional Convention the several states that the Constitution was going to bring together were sovereign international entities.

Brian Balogh: Describe Wilson’s vision of collective security through the League of Nations when he first imagined it, and tell me how that changed as a result of his war experience.

Erez Manela: Well, the issue that is often focused on when we think about collective security and the point that received the most critique in the debate in 1919 and after is the military commitment, that is, the sense that the collective security arrangements committed the United States to military involvement in Europe or elsewhere, wherever conflict was going to break out. And actually Wilson was very, very clear and he stated this numerous times explicitly, that the military intervention was going to be the very last resort, only if everything else has failed. And everything else meant two things that were to come before military intervention. One was what he called world opinion. His sense that once you get countries agreeing to be members, to join up, you will get countries and leaders starting to feel that they’re compelled, they have an interest in a sense.

Erez Manela: Now, if that wasn’t going to work, if some country was going to take aggressive action despite these kinds of shared understandings, then the next stage was going to be economic sanctions. But here, this was going to be a multilateral process, so this is the innovation. Innovation is that it wasn’t simply going to be one belligerent was going to put the other belligerent under blockade, it was going to be that the world community in a sense was going to agree through the league of nations to put an aggressive nation under economic sanction. So that was going to be the next stage, and he was very clear that that was an important stage.

Brian Balogh: So buy in from the international community was one of the real key innovations that Wilson was pursuing.

Erez Manela: Absolutely. And I think, I mean look. International organizations had been in place for a while, and obviously the clearest precedent here is the Concert of Europe that was put in place after the Napoleonic wars, after 1815. But for Wilson actually, it wasn’t a very good precedent because the Concert only took into account the views of the great powers. And Wilson actually strongly believed in this concept of the equality of nations, that the small nations as they were called at the time had to be involved in this, and in fact he perceived in a sense, the small nations operating as a kind of break on the ambitions of the great powers.

Brian Balogh: How did the League of Nations that actually emerged out of the Treaty of Versailles, how did that differ from Wilson’s original conception?

Erez Manela: Well that’s actually a really important question, because one thing that’s often missed in the history is that the League of Nations Covenant that emerged out of Versailles was a very different creature from what Wilson had envisioned. I think the best example of this is through the evolution of what’s known as Article 10 that guaranteed the security and territorial integrity of the nations’ members of the League and committed the other members to intervening in various ways, because what Wilson said in that draft was, he started off by saying, “Yes, the League guarantees the security and territorial integrity of the member states,” but then there was a very important and extended except, and he said, “Except in such circumstances,” and I’m paraphrasing, “Except in such circumstances where changes in racial conditions and economic conditions and the desires of the peoples concerned will necessitate changes in borders pursuant to the principle of self determination,” and he said that in such cases the League of Nations could be a 75% or three quarters majority could actually affect the redrawing of borders, of international borders. So he actually wanted to build into the League a mechanism for what can only be described as, I suppose a form of world government.

Brian Balogh: Right. This is really pretty radical stuff.

Erez Manela: It is! It is quite radical stuff. Now, I want to emphasize, Wilson did not come by this radical idea easily, he came by it because by the end of the war he was convinced that the old order was so broken and so dangerous that something radical had to be done to put together an international system that would work.

Brian Balogh: It wasn’t exactly what Wilson envisioned, but we do get a League of Nations sans the United States. Did it accomplish what Wilson thought it would?

Erez Manela: Well obviously it didn’t, it didn’t even come close. First of all, the League Covenant that emerges from the negotiations in Versailles is quite different from what Wilson had in mind initially, it’s to his mind a watered down version. He still defends it, he still wants the United States to join it, and that’s because he has an evolutionary view of such institutions. He thinks as long as we can put in place something, even something very imperfect, we have a chance of it evolving in the right direction over time. Then the other problem is that the United States Senate rejects the Treaty of Versailles and the League Covenant that was attached to it, and so the United States in fact never joins the League of Nations.

Brian Balogh: How much did Wilson’s vision shape American foreign policy in the century that has followed?

Erez Manela: Oh, I think it’s shaped American foreign policy and American posture in the world to a very great degree. If we look at Franklin Roosevelt, I see Roosevelt as a convinced Wilsonian who believes in the second World War, that Wilson had it right in terms of the general principles, but bungled the implementation because he was a less than perfect politician. And Roosevelt, I think, sets out to implement the Wilsonian vision, if you will, but to do it right. So he reconstitutes the League of Nations as the United Nations, and that system that Wilson put in place is not only not discarded, it’s in fact bolstered and developed into the United Nations system that we have today, and the United Nations Security Counsel, the General Assembly, and all of the various other organizations like UNESCO, like the World Health Organization, so on and so forth, that in fact have a great deal of impact on the lives of people around the world. And so in that sense I think we have to find that Wilson was right. The system that he believed in has in fact evolved, even if it hasn’t fulfilled all the hopes that he and others have had for it.

Brian Balogh: Erez, thanks for making Wilsonianism safe for public radio. I really appreciate it.

Erez Manela: Thanks for having me. It was a great pleasure.

Brian Balogh: Erez Manela is professor of history at Harvard University and author of the book, The Wilsonian Moment: Self Determination in the International Origins of Anti-Colonial Nationalism.

Nathan Connolly: That’s going to do it for us today, but you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode, or ask us your questions about history. You’ll find us at, or send an email to We’re also on Facebook and Twitter at backstoryradio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

Brian Balogh: BackStory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Provost Office at the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional support is founded by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment. And special thanks to the Johns Hopkins Studios in Baltimore.

Nathan Connolly: Brian Balogh is professor of History at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University.

Nathan Connolly: BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for Virginia Humanities.