Fletcher M. Burton *88 on active duty for the foreign service in Albania. Pillboxes seen on the hillside were part of the country’s self-defense measures during its total isolation in the Communist period.
Courtesy of Fletcher M. Burton *88
‘Wilson’s icon has been shattered, and yet we are not through’

We didn’t have any school this afternoon because of the President’s visit. I went to hear him speak at the Auditorium first only it was packed full. . . At last I saw him standing in the observation platform of the train with Mrs. Wilson behind him. My room is being painted over.” — Jan. 31, 1916, from the diary of 11-year-old George Kennan ‘25 on Woodrow Wilson’s visit to Milwaukee

We are still struggling to put Woodrow Wilson 1879 in context, to place him in the right box, the right room in the museum. He has lost his place of honor at my alma mater, and I support the decision. The Princeton exhibit on Wilson was for me a powerful indictment. As a federal employee at the U.S. State Department for many years, I find his segregation of the federal work force inexcusable. We live in an age of reckoning, of iconoclasm. Wilson’s icon has been shattered.  

And yet we are not through with Woodrow Wilson. After all, my alma mater is a school of international affairs, and so we should ask: What is his standing abroad, his international legacy? What is left of him in the world? Can we adopt Henry Kissinger’s conclusion that Wilson originated “the dominant intellectual school of American foreign policy”? The current U.S. policy on the Belarusian crisis suggests that his influence has not entirely vanished.

A Superstar

Wilson was the first global American. Millions turned out to see him when he arrived in Europe in 1918 to negotiate a peace settlement after World War I. (Those crowds may have spread the Spanish flu; we know Wilson himself contracted it.) European cities, including Prague and Tirana, erected statues of him. Other European cities, including Paris, Rome and Sarajevo, named streets after him. Probably every Pole knew which of the Fourteen Points called for an independent Poland (it was the 13th). Sigmund Freud joined an American diplomat in writing a psychological profile of him. F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917 planned a play on his life. At Downton Abbey, as we saw on PBS, his policies provoked discussion upstairs and down. In the 1990s, during his daredevil diplomacy in the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke *70 admitted he had Wilson constantly on his mind and carried with him Harold Nicolson’s Peacemaking 1919 on the Versailles treaty.

And, of course, the Princeton school was named after him — though not until 1947, some 17 years after its inception. The university’s decision to honor Wilson came at a creative time in U.S. diplomacy. The years 1947-49 laid many of the foundations of American foreign policy — Containment, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO. Wilson’s foreign policy in 1917-19 ranks with that period as one of the most consequential in U.S. diplomacy. They both take their place with the extraordinary American diplomacy of 1989-91, which saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unification of Germany, the dissolution of Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War. Each of these three periods left a profound legacy, each connected to the next, culminating in the last.

As a foreign service officer, a practitioner on the business end of foreign policy, I encountered Wilson’s legacy throughout my career. During my 25 years in the field, I often dealt with his creed and occasionally laid eyes on his monuments. One way to measure his impact is to date American foreign policy before and after Wilson.

Setting the Agenda

Wilsonianism is easily caricatured, its diplomacy dismissed as utopian idealism. But while U.S. diplomats in the field may imagine themselves as idealistic in motive and realistic in practice, the dualism stops there. If there was any dividing line, in my experience, it was between working to an idea, a vision, or simply muddling through without an overarching concept. And there is no doubt Wilson held out a vision.  

As the British diplomat Robert Cooper said in 2005, Wilsonianism can be boiled down to an agenda of three principles: international organization, democracy, and self-determination. In today’s world, Cooper believes, there is no viable alternative to this agenda. “Versailles is seen as a failure but it set the agenda for 20th and 21st centuries.” There is much wisdom in this viewpoint. 

My own foreign service work in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq was dominated by Wilsonianism in Cooper’s sense, by this three-pronged agenda.

In terms, first, of international organization, Bosnia and Kosovo are the most multilateralized countries in the world, their capital cities swarming with international agencies and officials. An entire framework of international organizations sprang up with their peace settlements, embracing NATO, UN, EU, OSCE, ad hoc missions, and scores of bilateral embassies. This was also somewhat true of my deployment in Afghanistan; less so, however, in Iraq because of the ruinous circumstances of the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Second, on democracy, we strove in all four countries to support democratic politics and states. Countless programs and enormous outlays contributed to this goal. This was especially important in Iraq, since democracy was the glue keeping together a fractious state, a ramshackle federal construct. In these four countries, there was simply no alternative, no competing model, to democracy. As a paradigm, it swept the field.

The third of Cooper’s triad, self-determination, is the tricky one. Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, played the Cassandra at Versailles, warning of the sheer impossibility of applying self-determination neatly and consistently. Wilson later admitted as much. Personally, I found it exceedingly difficult to apply in the Balkans, with its rich mix of ethnicities, the most complex in all of Europe and where the devil has taken up permanent residence in all manner of details. Earlier in my career, I worked on the Canada desk at the State Department in the run-up to the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence, where the perplexity of self-determination was also evident. Just as Lansing had asked: In what political unit will the decision be arranged — “a race, a territorial area, or a community”? That said, self-determination remains a potent principle, as I discovered during my year in Kirkuk, on the fringe of Kurdistan, which ever since Versailles has dreamed of an independent state and invoked Wilson. 

Strip away Wilson’s utopian rhetoric — “war to end war” and “make the world safe for democracy” — and much remains, above all these three principles. They find their echo in later decades, for example, in the “Atlantic Charter” of 1941. As N. Gordon Levin, one of the most brilliant of Wilson scholars, concluded, “Wilson established the main drift toward an American liberal globalism,” carried forward by such major figures as Herbert Hoover, Cordell Hull, FDR, and John Foster Dulles. “Ultimately,” Levin wrote in the final sentence of his book on the 28th president, “in the post-World War II period, Wilsonian values would have their complete triumph in the bi-partisan Cold War consensus.”

One current example of the Wilsonian agenda deals with U.S. policy on the roiling crisis in Belarus: It calls for the Belarusian people to express their democratic will, new elections to be monitored by an international entity (OSCE), and the country’s destiny to be a matter solely of Belarusian choice. The Wilson school lives on. 

Drawing the Lines

To the practitioner, however, there is something foul about the 1919 peace negotiations. Nothing is more alarming than the notion of a U.S. president haggling over details, bogged down in secondary controversies, as Wilson did in Paris for months on end; nothing more astonishing than the image of Wilson poring over maps to conjure borders. A new approach to history emphasizes “maps not chaps.” But a review of the Versailles settlement must find fault in both. 

A young British diplomat, Harold Nicolson, saw Wilson in action and recorded several scenes of the president with his British and French counterparts bent over maps, like witches from Macbeth reciting their chant, “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.” In Peacemaking 1919, Nicolson captured this moment from the president’s residence in Paris, a month before the end of the Peace Conference:

“President Wilson takes a map, spreads it on the carpet in an alcove-room, and kneels down. We all squat in a circle round him. It is like hunt the slipper. He explains what has been decided downstairs about the Jugo-Slav frontier. He does this with perfect lucidity: Princeton returns to him.” 

We can be grateful for the return of Princetonian qualities and yet this scene, even after a century, continues to stupefy. And here’s another Nicolson vignette from that same month: “I find President Wilson extended flat up the hearth-rug and Clemenceau on all fours beside him. They are still gazing at my beastly map of Asia Minor.”

During my posting in Kosovo, I spent 18 months working on the demarcation of the Kosovo-Macedonia border, a mere 100 miles in length, about the same as Princeton to New York and back. It was a painstaking process involving not just lines on a map but consultation with the locals. There is a saying in the Balkans to explain poorly drawn borders: “fingers too fat, maps too small,” suggesting that diplomats trace cartographical boundaries with fateful imprecision. The aftermath of the Yugoslav dissolution, like that of the Versailles settlement, demonstrates the explosive character of contested borders.

German diplomats like to say that a composite history of all the shifting borders of Europe, if all drawn with black lines, would produce a startling image — a big black blot. Beastly, indeed. Wilson should have been forewarned about European maps. 

The Diplomat

As a practitioner, I believe one of Wilson’s major blunders was his decision to spend over six months in Europe negotiating details of the settlement — “wrangling,” as his chief aide called it disparagingly. Where were the president’s aides to frame a decision for him, to present options already thrashed out at a lower level, to keep him off the floor? 

We can partly fault the State Department for this sorry state of affairs. According to Walter Lippmann, who was a member of Wilson’s special team laying the groundwork for the Peace Conference, the department was ill-prepared and ill-equipped. Lippmann went to see the experts in the department’s Near Eastern division, only to discover a lone filing cabinet and a single official, who had never set foot in the area. Then Lippmann went upstairs to see the secretary of state to discuss the borders of Yugoslavia. Lippmann did not need to kneel over a map to illustrate his points; he pulled down one of the big roller maps on the wall. But the map was outdated; it showed borders before the first Balkan wars. (Lippmann, incidentally, also contracted the Spanish flu; he survived but sat bedside as an American colleague succumbed.)

The fact is the American diplomatic corps was not a professional organization in 1919. Our embassies in Europe at that time evidently did little to help prepare Wilson for the conference. One of the U.S. peace commissioners was Henry White, a two-time ambassador. Wilson chose him less for his European expertise, which counted for little in the conference, and more for his Republican credentials. Lippmann tells the story of going to the U.S. embassy in Paris to obtain a copy of the 14 Points, only to be told the embassy did not have one. Lippmann became a caustic critic of U.S. diplomats stationed in Europe. Their ineptitude forms the backdrop to the great congressional legislation of 1924 to professionalize the American foreign service.

The Streetfighter

Wilson’s tussle with his French counterpart, the wily Clemenceau, the truculent “Tiger,” marked one of the major struggles of the entire conference. The French prime minister, ever fearful of Prussian military superiority, tried to hamstring Germany, in part by claiming the Saar Basin and its coal mines. His clash with Wilson has echoed down the years. We can see it in the draft outline of a historical play by F. Scott Fitzgerald based on the life of Wilson. Act IV was to take place at the conference with the following repartee: “Clemenceau: ‘We want the Saar.’ Wilson: ‘No, sarre, we won’t hear of it.’ Laughter.” 

Well, the laughter stayed in Fitzgerald’s head; he did not go on to write the play. But he did pluck at a real matter. And he could have made rich dramatic use of Wilson sunk over maps, in the same spirit of Charlie Chaplin tossing around his beachball of a globe.

The Wilson-Clemenceau collision still reverberates today in the mock instructions to U.S. diplomats in Paris on dealings with the French foreign ministry: “Your job is to go down to the Quay d’Orsay, find out what the French are up to, and tell ‘em to knock it off.”

The City of Light went on to memorialize Wilson by naming one of their grandest boulevards after him. (FDR and JFK would later receive the same urban honors.) Yet it seems the French reserve their warmest affection for another American diplomat, Ben Franklin, whose statue presides at the lovely Square de Yorktown in Paris and whose bust, judging by a recent Zoom background, graces the office of the French ambassador in Washington.

Wilson’s principles also collided with the Italian bid for a stretch of the Dalmatian coast. The Italian prime minister, believing he had secured such a claim in a secret treaty, staged a walk-out of the conference when the American president blocked his demand for the city of Fiume. (It is now the Croatian Rijeka.) In a further show of outrage, and in an early instance of cancel culture, Italy changed the name of a street recently christened Via Wilson. It became Via Fiume.  

Wilson As — Yes — Racist

The crass contradiction between Wilson’s stand on world politics and his stance on American race relations did not escape others in Paris during the conference. Queen Marie of Romania, for example, approached Wilson to protest the obligation of some European countries, including her own, to sign treaties binding them to treat their minorities equally. What about similar provisions for the Blacks in the U.S., she asked Wilson, according to historian Margaret Macmillan. 

And Nicolson recorded a scene at the conference instigated by the Japanese, who insisted on language proclaiming racial equality. This caused a “grave difficulty” for Wilson, according to Nicolson: On one hand, the League of Nations’ covenant implied racial equality. “On the other hand no American Senate would ever dream of ratifying any Covenant which enshrined so dangerous a principle.” To escape his dilemma, Wilson vetoed the Japanese proposal, a step, Nicolson added, that “had left even him [Wilson] with an uneasy feeling inside.” But a queasiness overcome.

A Flaneur

During its Austro-Hungarian period, Sarajevo laid out a charming lane next to the Miljacka River near the city center. After World War I it was given the name of Wilson Promenade to honor the American peacemaker and his dream of a League of Nations. It fell on hard times during World War II when the name was temporarily changed to Mussolini Street, as well as during the Bosnian war of 1992-95, when it marked the furthest penetration of the Serb siege into the city. As a diplomat serving at our embassy during the war, I dared not go near Wilson Promenade, which ran parallel to Sniper’s Alley and ended at the bridge where the war had begun with the sniping death of two young women. Only after the war, ended by Holbrooke’s swashbuckling success, did the people of Sarajevo return to the spot. It became a popular outing for families and youth. On soft summer evenings, with the river refreshing the scene, it was crowded with people and animated by shouts of children. I used to go there often for walks. 

The Wilson Promenade is a perfect place to contemplate the contested reputation and complicated legacy of its namesake. As W.H. Auden said of Freud: if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, / to us he is no more a person / now but a whole climate of opinion.” Well, “whole climate of opinion” may seem a stretch for Wilson. But the fact remains that he founded an “ism” in American foreign policy. The Woodrow Wilson School is no more, and yet Wilson’s school has survived or, better said in our age of iconoclasm, the Wilsonian agenda has endured.

Fletcher M. Burton *88 spent over 25 years of his foreign service career in the field, including postings in Saudi Arabia, Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Iraq.