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Of Woodrow Wilson and George W Bush
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 08 - 2008

The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism, Erez Manela, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
As a young Oxford undergraduate in 1957 I had the great good fortune to hear the distinguished American diplomat, George Kennan, give a series of lectures on 'American diplomacy 1900-1950'. His central thesis was that twentieth century America foreign policy had been dogged by what he called a 'legalistic moralism' which stemmed from a desire to make it congruent with the kinds of principles which, so Americans believed, informed their domestic politics. Chief among the examples of the practitioners of this type of wrong-headed, unrealistic thinking was President whose 'impractical idealism', in Kennan's argument, did much to contribute to the failures of the peace settlement at the end of the First World War.
This is an interesting and important argument. But it contains only part of the truth. You need only to think of Henry Kissinger to know that American foreign policy has also contained a realist strain. Nor should Washington's frequent attempts to establish a set of rules defining the permissible international behaviour be dismissed in their entirety, however hypocritical and self-serving they may seem at times. As for its impact, the ability of the rest of the world not only to benefit directly from America's so-called idealism but also to harness it to their own national projects has also been a matter of enormous international significance since at least the beginning of the twentieth century.
It was with these memories in mind that I have been reading a thought-provoking new book, The Wilsonian Moment: Self- Determination and the International Origins of Anti-Colonial Nationalism by my Harvard History Department colleague, Erez Manela. Here is the first scholarly account of the global ramifications of President Wilson's vision of basing the post-World War One peace on the right of all peoples to determine their own futures, the corner-stone of his desire to build a new world order totally unlike the old. How did he come to put forward what seemed like such a revolutionary concept? What did it actually mean? How was it supposed to be implemented? And how was it received around the non- European world, particularly in the four countries chosen by Manela to demonstrate its most immediate impact, China, Korea, India and Egypt?
Wilson's pre-war thinking about empire is now relatively well-known. It began, like that of so many of his fellow-Americans, with his country's acquisition of the former Spanish colonies beginning with Cuba and the Philippines in 1898. These, he believed, should be prepared for ultimate self-government, but only after a period of training by means of direct American rule. Free institutions, he wrote, cannot be 'spread by manuscripts' like constitutions, they have to be installed and nurtured. And although the end goal was to make them 'at least equal members of the family of nations', it would be a gradual process, lasting perhaps as long as three or four generations. Like Britain, the United States should instruct the 'less civilized peoples ... in order and self- control in the midst of change'. Yet, unlike the thinking of most British imperialists at this time, Wilson at least had the saving grace of understanding that eventual self-government in places like the Philippines would probably look 'quite different' from that in America, having emerged out of its own historically- specific social and political circumstances.
How did Wilson's position change after he won the 1912 presidential election? On the one hand, he ordered a military intervention in Mexico in 1914 and the occupation of Haiti which lasted until 1934. On the other, he gave considerable thought to how best to present American colonial policy to the rest of the world. The answer: to put it forward not just as a practical test of American ideals but also as an example of American disinterestedness and benevolence towards peoples of all races and all regions of the globe. As Manela notes, this was to make 'self-government' a universal right, not a privilege limited to certain geographical regions and racial groups. Fine words, but how and when was such a right to be exercised and under whose auspices? This remained unclear.
One of the many virtues of Manela's approach is the way he underlines Wilson's desire to separate the aims and practices of the American empire from those of the British. This was to happen again after the United States had joined the war in 1917, encouraged by the need to define each ally's war-aims as well as to counter the dangers posed to the allied position by Lenin's call for national 'self-determination' inside the collapsing Russian imperial system. Hence, in response to Prime Minister Lloyd-George's expansive statement of 5 January 1918 that the post-war settlement must respect the right of 'self- determination' (Lenin's phrase) or the 'consent of the governed' (one of Wilson's), Wilson's famous Fourteen Points speech three days later called specifically for a settlement of colonial issues to take account of the 'interests' of the colonial populations.
No mention of 'self-determination' on this occasion, in spite of how this speech is now remembered. But it did come not much more than a month later when Wilson presented it to Congress as an 'imperative principle of action'. No matter that, on this occasion, the President hedged it with strong verbal qualifications: that it be applied only to 'well-defined national aspirations' and to the extent that they did not create or perpetuate 'elements of discord'. From then on, as Manela ably demonstrates, a growing world audience became convinced that the President of the United States, a powerful country untainted by the colonialism of old European empires, was going to set them free. As a result, during the 'Wilsonian moment', which lasted in Manela's judgment from the ending of the war in 1918 to the spring of 1919, Wilson himself, in the words of the influential British economist, John Maynard Keynes, 'enjoyed a prestige and a moral influence throughout the world unequalled in history'.
Just how all this came about is also very much part of Manela's story. On the one hand, there was a vast and effective machinery of global communications -- cables and then wireless -- which, by 1914 carried news about the world in a matter of hours. On the other, an American propaganda machine led by the Committee on Public Information which used a wide variety of media, for example millions of pamphlets in many languages, to present American ideals and Wilson's version of America's war-aims to a global audience. As a result, as Manela notes, the reading public in China, Indian, Korea, and elsewhere, were not only aware of Wilson's support for self-determination but in little doubt that the principle should apply to them. It offered colonial nationalists a new language of rights. It also seemed to offer them a great opportunity to state their case before the President in the new world forum about to be established at the peace conference. If only they could get to Paris, if only they could talk to him face to face!
The essential features of this same story as it relates to Egypt -- the role of Zaghlul and the Wafd, the Egyptian uprising when the delegation was not allowed to proceed to France, and then of its subsequent difficulties in presenting its case before a world audience -- is widely known. What Manela is able to add is a lot of detail about the expectations which Wilson's principles aroused in Cairo in 1918, about the shaping of Egyptian demands in Wilsonian language, and about their continuing political impact long after Wilson himself had agreed to recognize the British protectorate over Egypt and, in general, disappointed almost all the high hopes vested in him.
Talk of Wilsonian 'self-determination' was everywhere in Cairo in 1918. It received extensive coverage in Al-Ahram. It was publicized by the American Consulate-General. It was appealed to by Zaghlul and his colleagues in their famous visit to see Reginald Wingate, the British High Commissioner, only two days after the war had ended. As a result, Egyptian nationalists inside Egypt and -- like Mohamed Farid -- in exile, were convinced that the post-war peace settlement would have to correspond to American ideals.
Typical, it would seem, of the temper of those times was a Cairo encounter in the summer of 1918 between the writer, Muhammad Husayn Haykal, and the historian, Abd al-Rahman Al-Rafi'i. 'We have a right to self- determination', asserted a jubilant al-Rafi'i and therefore 'the English will leave Egypt' And when asked why he thought Wilson's promises would be implemented, he replied that the United States was not an imperialist country and would make sure they were enforced. Moreover, 'Egypt now had a forum for making the case against England and a winning argument'.
Particular attention was paid to trying to obtain Wilson's ear and to get him to protest against Britain's refusal to allow the delegation to travel to Paris. The American Legation in Cairo received dozens of protests signed by men from all sections of the Egyptian elite. Petitions were also sent to the United States delegation housed in the Hotel Crillon in Paris, including a thirty-one page pamphlet prepared by a group of Egyptian activisits in Geneva, the first section of which was entitled 'Egypt and the Wilsonian principle'. Zaghlul himself was particularly active, sending telegrams to Wilson as well as letters to Hampson Gary, the American Consul-General in Cairo, arguing that the United States had intervened in the world war for no other purpose than that of 'safeguarding the rights of small nations', and offering to place Egypt's case under the supervision of the new League of Nations if only America would give its support.
Sadly, however, it is doubtful if President Wilson himself either saw any of these messages or was particularly aware of Egyptian national demands. In Paris, the British worked hard to ensure that Egyptian letters to the Peace Conference were simply filed away rather than circulated. Members of Wilson's own delegation were equally obstructive. These included the future Director of the CIA, the young Allan Foster Dulles, then in the State Department's Division of Near East Affairs, who suggested that communications from the Egyptians should not even be acknowledged. While in Cairo, Gary refused to receive Zaghlul or any of his colleagues, arguing in his dispatches to Washington that they were not authentic representatives of the Egyptian people but simply a native aristocracy which was not 'conversant with American and British ideals'.
It was much the same when Zaghlul and members of the delegation finally got to Paris in April 1919. As is well known, Zaghlul himself had prepared for the occasion by improving his English-language skills, the better to make his case to Wilson at first hand. But for all his efforts he never got an opportunity to use them. Indeed, the door had been well and truly closed by the successful British attempt to persuade Wilson to support the continuation of the British protectorate, a deadly blow. Nevertheless, staying on in Paris for most of the rest of 1919, Zaghlul still tried, unsuccessfully, to get to see Wilson in the weeks before the President finally returned to Washington in June. Thereafter he continued to write letters, rarely even acknowledged, and to make the rounds of the foreign delegations still in France, leaving messages with his card to which only the Italian Prime Minister had the courtesy to reply.
The only small success was obtained in the United States itself. There, to the Egyptians' great joy, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee voted to hear their case on the grounds that, as their country was not under either Turkish or British rule, it must be 'self- governed'. Given the rule that only American citizens could appear before the Committee, the Egyptian position was presented by Joseph Folk, a former Democratic Governor of Missouri. As might be supposed, he did so in terms of Egypt's faith in Wilson's liberal international principles. Equally unsurprisingly, the Senate refused to act on Folk's appeal that America rescinds its recognition of Britain's protectorate in order to allow Egypt to bring its claim before the League of Nations. Later in the year a Wafdist delegation to America led by Mohammad Mahmoud obtained a certain amount of American popular support but also without being able to exert any significant influence in official Washington itself.
By this time Zaghlul himself had finally given up hopes of changing Wilson's mind. Meanwhile, more pressing matters were at hand with the December arrival in Egypt of the Milner mission sent from London to study the crisis produced by the revolt of 1919 and to suggest possible remedies. As Zaghlul was quick to see, this provided a perfect opportunity to try new methods of non-violent opposition, notably an almost complete boycott of talks with the Milner and his colleagues successful enough to persuade Milner himself, and then London, that the continuation of the protectorate was not worth the cost of a the huge military force which would be required to govern Egypt without Egyptian cooperation. This was to become official British policy two years later with the unilateral abrogation of the protectorate in November 1922, leading to limited independence, the drawing up of a Constitution and the first national election in February 1924 won in landslide fashion by Zaghlul's Wafd, now re- organised as a highly effective political machine. It was, in the circumstances, a major achievement.
The other national movements studied by Manela followed something of the same trajectory but without the same immediate success. They too created new mass movements -- the March the Fourth Movement in Korea, the May Fourth Movement in China, the revived Indian National Congress -- with new forms of organization embracing representatives of the whole of their societies, students, workers, women, peasants and others. They too experiment with new forms of political action: mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, their impact not dissimilar to that of a general strike.
Such confrontational tactics were not what Wilson had in mind of course. He would have preferred the colonial nationalists to make their case calmly before the League of Nations, not noisily and sometimes with violence, in their own streets. Nevertheless, by giving them a language with which to express their demands, by creating an incentive for them to organize truly nation-wide coalitions, by raising a world-wide sense of expectation and opportunity, he had contributed something -- Manela cannot quite decide how much -- to the proliferation of colonial demands to be allowed to choose their own form of government. As Muhammad Husayn Haykal was to point out in an article written in Al-Siyasa on the occasion of Wilson's death in 1924, while the Wilsonian moment had heralded the end of the great conflict in Europe, its dissipation had given rise to an even greater one still, 'between East and West, between imperialism and self-determination'.
Why does all this sound so familiar almost a century later? Partly because Haykal's 'conflict' between East and West is still not finally resolved. Partly because the world is not yet divided up into fully-functioning nation-states; partly because the logic of military occupation still invites a counter- resistance in terms of the right of peoples to govern themselves. And partly because the strand of legalistic moralism which George Kennan discerned in American foreign policy, or what Prankash Mishra, in another review of Manela's book, calls the ability to 'present America's strategic and political interests as moral imperatives', is still alive, if not exactly well, in the hands of a man -- George W Bush -- whose invasion of Iraq, as Mishra also points out, inspired The New Republic to call "the most Wilsonian President since Wilson himself."
Reviewed by Roger Owen


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