After reading about President Bush's speech calling for democracy in the Middle East -- a speech that's likely to do more harm than good, making regional supporters of democracy look like stooges of the Great Crusader -- it's interesting to turn to Ronald Steel's review of several books about Woodrow Wilson in the latest New York Review of Books (the article, unfortunately, isn't available free online).
Steel focuses on Wilson the unilateralist -- the president who sent troops to Latin America to, as he put it, "teach the South American Republics to elect good men." Steel writes:
In seeking justification for the use of force, the word "democracy" is the mantra. When Wilson insisted that "the world must be made safe for democracy," he was expressing not a hope but a mandate. For Wilsonians the democratic imperative is not negotiable. Like most other faiths, it is intolerant of every system other than itself. The paradox of democracy is that it can be intolerant in its absolutist demand for tolerance. It does not hesitate, whether under liberals or conservatives, to use military power to enforce surrender to its imperative In this it is like other crusading monotheistic faiths. To be indifferent to the spread of American-style democracy is to be unpatriotic. To ask why the world must be made safe for democracy is a subversive question.
Steel goes on to argue that Wilson wanted to spread democracy because he believed democratic countries don't fight one another, and thus the spread of democracy would be in America's self-interest. He adds,
...Wilson's political genius, from which his successors have learned much, was to formulate a policy that corresponded perfectly with America's strategic and political interests, and to phrase it in vocabulary that made it seem idealistic and self denying.
Sounds a bit familiar.