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Balancing Act: The Other Wilsonianism

Henry Cabot Lodge

John McCain has made this much clear: The 2008 election will be about national security. Barack Obama will discuss the economy, where he has an edge. He will even discuss Iraq, where his position enjoys public support. But McCain will broaden the discussion to the larger question of how the two candidates see the world. That was how George W. Bush won reelection in 2004. According to exit polls, voters who identified “Iraq” as their primary issue opposed Bush en masse. But he made up for that by handily winning over voters who cited “terrorism.” Today, even as majorities oppose the war in Iraq, polls show that Republicans still maintain the lead on the broader issue of “national security.” McCain’s candidacy depends on that advantage.

To counter McCain, Obama must do what Kerry could not: define what a liberal foreign policy is. His answer cannot be a laundry list; it must be an overarching theory of how America should relate to the world. For close to a century, American liberals have had such a theory, even if at times it has been submerged by events. That theory has not been rendered moot by the passage of decades; to the contrary, it has never been more relevant. It is called collective security.

The phrase “collective security” will forever be linked to Woodrow Wilson, the leader who presided over America’s emergence as a great power. Wilson was a progressive, which meant, among other things, that he was an optimist about human cooperation. Against Social Darwinists who celebrated competition because it hardened the strong and culled the weak, Wilson insisted that selfishness was neither natural nor good. In a nation bitterly divided between rich and poor, urban and rural, immigrant and native born, he saw unregulated self-interest as leading not to progress, but to civil war, as America’s fractious tribes trampled one another in their drive for power.

When Europe collapsed into war in 1914, Wilson applied this view to the international scene. He blamed the carnage of the First World War on the balance of power system that for centuries had defined European statecraft. Echoing the Social Darwinists at home, balance of power advocates celebrated unregulated self-interest on a global scale. If nations focused narrowly on their own defense and security, they argued, banding together against whoever amassed too much power, they would create a rough equilibrium among rivals, almost like an evenly balanced scale. And with no one power, or group of powers, capable of overwhelming its rivals, the balance of power would keep the peace. For Wilson, however, the theory was decisively repudiated at the Marne. Even before America entered the fray, he began to imagine a new postwar order, one that replaced anarchy with rules, competition with cooperation. When the bloodshed finally ended, he hoped, the balance of power would give way to collective security.

Whereas in the past nations had banded together in competing alliances, Wilson envisioned them joining in a single global alliance: not against one another but against war itself. Every member would swear an oath against aggression, and if any nation violated the pledge, it would find itself in a war of one against all. The global alliance would be called The League to Enforce Peace or, later, the League of Nations. And through it, Wilson declared in May 1916, “Coercion shall be summoned not to the service of political ambition or selfish hostility but to the service of a common order, a common justice and a common peace.”

In the decades after Wilson exited the political stage, American liberals held fast to his vision, even as events made it impossible to achieve. When it was his turn to envision a postwar order, Franklin Roosevelt, Wilson’s former assistant secretary of the navy, hatched a less ambitious version of collective security: essentially a compact between the world’s great powers, each wielding a veto on the Security Council of the new United Nations. When the Cold War came, even that modest vision of cooperation was buried beneath a new great power rivalry. Over and over during the Cold War, however, liberals insisted that the battle against Communism amounted to a temporary, albeit necessary, deferment of Wilson’s dream. Even as he constructed a balance of power against the USSR, Harry Truman carried in his pocket Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Locksley Hall,” which anticipated “the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.” In the inaugural address where he pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden” in America’s Cold War struggle, John F. Kennedy still imagined a world in which conflict receded before “a beachhead of cooperation . . . not a new balance of power, but a new world of law.” Jimmy Carter went even further, hoping to “replace balance of power politics with world order politics” because “we have already become a global community.”

Carter was wrong: The world will never truly be a global community. But it has moved closer to this ideal than it ever was during the Cold War. As a result, the architecture of collective security has never been more necessary nor more possible. First, however, that architecture must be summoned into existence. Only the United States, which in recent years has done all it could to destroy Wilson’s vision, can lead this task. And because most Republicans loathe the very concept of collective security, the task will fall to Democrats—and Barack Obama in particular—or it will fall to no one.



To revive the collective security tradition, Democrats must first conquer a fear: not of military adversaries overseas, but of political adversaries here at home. For several generations now, liberals have lived in terror of being labeled “soft” on national security. The policymakers of the early Cold War—men like Dean Acheson, Hubert Humphrey, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson—saw colleagues and friends destroyed during the McCarthy years, and the experience haunted them to their graves. Baby boomers, coming of age during Vietnam, saw Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan exploit the popular impression of Democratic weakness to win electoral landslides. And, most recently, a younger, post-Cold War generation has listened to George W. Bush assail Democrats as appeasers in the war on terror, and ride the accusation to victory in the elections of 2002 and 2004.

As a result, for many Democrats shaped in the eras of Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush, the simple act of envisioning a liberal foreign policy has been radically inhibited. In Washington, where discussions of policy can rarely be disentangled from discussions of politics, the assumption that Americans tend to be naturally “Jacksonian”—hawkish, nationalistic, and unilateralist—blunts intellectual inquiry before it even begins. Democrats don’t wait for Karl Rove to tell them that Joe Sixpack considers them weak and naïve; they tell each other. The result has been a party that devises its foreign policies under such heavy political constraints that, were those constraints suddenly to be lifted, many Democrats would be hard-pressed to articulate the principles that lie beneath. Democrats have become so accustomed to not saying what they truly believe about foreign policy—because they assume these beliefs, once exposed, would invite political disaster—that they have nearly forgotten what the beliefs were in the first place.

The contrast with the development of modern conservative foreign policy is instructive. When William F. Buckley, James Burnham, and the other founding editors of National Review set out in the 1950s to devise a conservative approach to the Cold War, they did so in the full knowledge that their views were wildly outside the political mainstream. (In fact, Buckley and Burnham did not even live in Washington.) Yet they continued to elaborate and refine them, making few concessions to political necessity, until in 1976 and 1980, when Ronald Reagan brought first the Republican Party, and then the entire country, around to their worldview.

The point is not that Democratic foreign policymakers should ignore political reality. Sometimes external events—the fall of China, the Soviet atomic test and the Communist invasion of South Korea in 1949 and 1950, the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and of course 9/11—force liberals to trim their ideological sails in the face of conservative gusts. But liberals, and I include myself in this indictment, tend to internalize these moments so deeply that even after the political constraints have been washed away, they cannot see that the storm has passed. The awful irony of Vietnam, David Halberstam argued in The Best and the Brightest, was that by 1964 and 1965, when Lyndon Johnson set America on the path to quagmire, the fears of a right-wing backlash that haunted him into doing so were vastly overblown. But Johnson, so deeply scarred by McCarthyism early in his career, could not see how much the political landscape had changed by the mid-1960s.

2008 is a similar moment. Politically, the storm has passed, and yet Democrats remain so traumatized by the past that they have trouble seeing present circumstances for what they are. Analogies with the 1970s and 1980s, and with 2004, hang darkly over Democratic foreign policy discussions. Yet in two fundamental ways, the analogies are misplaced. In 1980, after the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Americans were newly—and justifiably—scared. That fear was dramatically revived in the years following September 11, 2001. According to one 2002 poll, even a plurality of Democratic voters preferred the GOP on matters of national defense.

When Americans look out at the world today, however, they see no rising menace. It has been more than six years since the twin towers fell, and there has been no second attack on U.S. soil; the percentage of Americans worried about terrorism has dwindled to roughly one-tenth of what it was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The Iraq War has left Americans exhausted and embittered, but not particularly frightened. In this way, 2008 looks more like 1976 or 1992, when foreign threats seemed to be receding. In those elections, Republican efforts to play up their national security bona fides went nowhere, and absent another terrorist attack between now and November, they may this year as well.

The second reason Democrats will be less vulnerable to being tagged as soft in 2008 is that Bush and McCain—unlike Nixon and Reagan—have not held the political center. In 1972, Nixon flayed George McGovern as a defeatist, but critically, he also withdrew American ground troops from Vietnam. Ronald Reagan painted Jimmy Carter and then Walter Mondale as weak and feckless, and promised a stronger, more patriotic America. Tellingly, however, he promised strength without sacrifice. He bolstered America’s defenses, but never sent large numbers of American troops into harm’s way.

Had Nixon prolonged the ground war in Vietnam, or Reagan dispatched U.S. troops in sizable numbers to Central America, their presidencies would have been far more vulnerable, as their advisers well knew. And, yet, this alternative is exactly what Bush has conjured in Iraq. Only he has left McCain to demand the sacrifice that the country no longer wishes to make.

Because of the public’s declining sense of threat, and because Republicans have forfeited the political center, Democrats have much less to fear politically than they did during the Nixon or Reagan years, or even in 2004. If anything, Democratic foreign policy views have gained a widespread appeal. While there has been a lot of handwringing in recent years about the growing isolationism of the American people, the decisive shift has not been in whether and to what extent Americans want to engage in the world, but in how. In a July 2006 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, only 12 percent of Americans said that “the U.S. should withdraw from most efforts to solve international problems.” Another 10 percent said that “as the sole remaining superpower, the U.S. should continue to be the preeminent world leader in solving international problems.” But an overwhelming 75 percent agreed that “the U.S. should do its share in efforts to solve international problems together with other countries.”

Even as Democrats fret about their reputation for weakness, when it comes to foreign policy, they really no longer have a reputation for anything. As John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira have documented, Americans see Democrats as weak not so much because they regard their foreign policy views as too dovish but because they think Democrats have no views at all. At some level, Republicans understand this. It’s why the Bush campaign spent more time and energy depicting John Kerry as a flip-flopper, someone who evinced no firm foreign policy convictions, than as a McGovernite who hewed consistently to the far left.

As recently as July 2006, a Democracy Corps poll still gave Republicans a 23-point advantage on knowing where they stand. Simply as a matter of politics, therefore, Democrats urgently need to articulate a foreign policy vision that Americans can identify and comprehend. As a matter of heritage and conviction, that vision is collective security.



To understand what collective security is, it helps to understand what George W. Bush is not: Admirers often—and wrongly—identify him as Woodrow Wilson’s heir. To be sure, Bush, like Wilson, talks about exporting democracy. But he rarely speaks about Wilson’s more fundamental idea: a global community of nations. Perhaps the Bush administration’s signature foreign policy phrase—it appears five times in the crucial 2002 National Security Strategy that set America’s post-9/11 course—is “a balance of power that favors freedom.” Even with its moralistic ring, the phrase means exactly what it says: The world is still defined by a balance of power, and in that competition, the forces of freedom—which also happen to be the forces associated with the United States—must gain the advantage.

This makes Bush the custodian not of Wilson’s legacy, but of the legacy of his great nemesis, Henry Cabot Lodge, the senator who helped keep America out of the League following World War I. Popular history has defamed Lodge as an isolationist, but what he actually believed in was the balance of power. Lodge considered Wilson’s dream of global cooperation utopian. In his view, America didn’t need a universal alliance to prevent war. It needed an alliance with France and Britain to keep the Germans down. Wilson’s expansive vision, he argued, would either draw America into conflicts in which it had no stake or compel it to rely on others for the protection of core interests that it alone could reliably safeguard. Lodge wanted America engaged in the world, but with sovereignty—not international law—as its lodestar.

During the Cold War, although liberals often paid rhetorical homage to collective security, and conservatives relentlessly disparaged it, the contours of the Wilson-Lodge debate were often hard to discern. In the 1990s, however, with the Cold War veil suddenly removed, they became much clearer. For the Clinton administration, globalization was the defining feature of the post-Cold War world. (It is no coincidence that Wilson also took office at a time of rising economic interdependence, which led to him to declare that “the whole world had already become a single vicinage.”) And since globalization created a set of common, global problems, solving them required common, global solutions: the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the expansion of UN peacekeeping, and the Kyoto Protocol, among others.

True to their ideological heritage, post-Cold War conservatives dismissed all of this as so much globaloney. Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America forbade U.S. troops from serving under UN command. The 1996 GOP platform declared that “A Republican president will withdraw from Senate consideration any pending international conventions or treaties that erode the constitutional foundations of our Republic.” And in the face of financial panics in East Asia and Latin America, many conservatives argued that instead of strengthening international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), America ought to withdraw from them altogether.
To be sure, conservatives differed sharply with one another on important points. Robert Taft-style isolationists such as Patrick Buchanan argued for building a missile shield and bidding the world goodbye. Conservative internationalists like William Kristol, by contrast, urged America to turn its “unipolar moment” into a search for monsters to destroy. But both groups were descendents of Lodge. Each believed that the world was—and always would be—a jungle. One argued that the beasts were so dangerous that America needed to hunt them down, while the other claimed they could be safely ignored, provided America built itself a wide enough moat.

September 11 destroyed Buchananism as an option: America couldn’t simply pull up the drawbridge. And so Bush exchanged his minimalist, humble foreign policy for a maximalist, crusading one. Soon, he was speechifying about the enemies of freedom and commentators were anointing him a Wilson for our time. But they missed a crucial distinction: Bush had simply exchanged one half of the Lodge argument for the other. The Wilsonian response would have been to label jihadist terrorism a threat to the community of nations, thereby compelling its members to establish more effective rules and mechanisms to provide for the common defense. Bush’s response was to invent a new great power rivalry. In his 2002 State of the Union address, the president identified Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and their alleged terrorist proxies as a new “axis of evil”—the rival alliance for which many conservatives had been waiting impatiently since the Berlin Wall fell. But the concept made little sense: jihadist terrorism was not the weapon of a rival alliance of states. It existed largely outside the state system. Nor, for that matter, was this an especially powerful bloc of states.

In truth, a key feature of the post-Cold War world has been the relative absence of balance of power competition. The crumbling of the Soviet Union meant the U.S. had no serious military rival. Looking back after 9/11, conservatives like Charles Krauthammer derided the 1990s as a “holiday from history,” implying that since the Clinton era was devoid of epic conflict, nothing much of significance had gone on. But for many around the world, cooperation against common threats like global warming, financial collapse, nuclear proliferation, genocide, and civil war represented a real and measurable evolution of global norms and values. Close observers detected movement, albeit modest, towards the achievement of Wilson’s dream.

From the moment he took office, Bush systematically thwarted those efforts. And after 9/11, when he called for establishing a new balance of power against a nonexistent alliance of rival states, many foreign observers rightly assumed that what he really intended was unconstrained American hegemony. In a genuine balance of power, after all, each side seeks to maximize its strength, but their exertions generate an equal and opposite reaction from their rivals, and it is that rough equality which prevents catastrophe. Since no real rival alliance existed after 9/11, however, the balance of power to which Bush alluded might be better described as world domination. The irony of Bush’s rhetoric, as the diplomatic historian Melvyn Leffler has noted, was that the only way for a balance of power to function in the post-Cold War era was for other nations to band together against the United States. Therein lies the deeper significance of the spike in anti-American sentiment since the Iraq War. Previously, America’s willingness to be constrained by universal rules had rendered it a somewhat predictable and benign hegemon, thus persuading weaker nations that U.S. power offered benefits and did not pose an overwhelming threat. But when President Bush cast off those constraints, many concluded that balancing against American power made more sense than encouraging it. And so, to a degree, Bush’s worldview became self-fulfilling.

Recently, as the limits of American power have become excruciatingly clear, the Bush administration has started consulting more intensively with its allies. But the change has been less fundamental than it seems. Embracing multilateralism does not mean embracing collective security. Recall, for instance, that Lodge desired an alliance with France and that the conservative Cold Warrior John Foster Dulles was accused of “pactomania” for constructing regional alliances like SEATO and CENTO to contain Communism in Asia and the Middle East. Similarly, Bush has courted America’s European and Arab allies with an eye to building an alliance against Iran. He has also thickened America’s ties to Japan and Australia and devised a new alliance with India—in this case to contain a rising China. Likewise, McCain’s proposal for a League of Democracies, which pointedly excludes Russia, will almost certainly be viewed—and not altogether wrongly—as a way to hem in Moscow.

By contrast, when it comes to agreements that bind all nations in pursuit of common goals—and in which the only enemy is the problem to be solved—the Bush administration has evinced little interest, or has undercut the efforts entirely. Having opposed the Kyoto Accords on global warming, it now opposes proposals for a serious follow-on agreement. It has moved to build new classes of nuclear weapons and dismissed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, thereby sabotaging the nuclear non-proliferation regime. And it has battled the International Criminal Court at every turn. In the administration’s telling, attempts to solve common global problems imperil American sovereignty, distract from the real business of foreign policy, or camouflage foreign efforts to weaken the United States. The common thread is a disdain for Wilson’s dream, the certainty that conflict, rather than cooperation, must always define America’s relationship to the world.



Here, of course, the Bush administration is not entirely wrong. Competition and conflict will always be features of the international landscape. Nations will always view their interactions, to some degree, as zero-sum. Even the Clinton administration, for all its one-world rhetoric, expanded NATO into Eastern Europe and then used it to wage war in Kosovo, thereby circumventing the UN—as, indeed, it did on several occasions. At its purest, collective security remains an ideal that can never be achieved.

What matters is whether the blend between collective security and the balance of power fits the times. The Bush administration’s great mistake was to tilt away from collective security in a post-Cold War world that impelled the U.S. to tilt towards it. John McCain has retreated from Bush’s stance slightly. He seems more open to a meaningful compact on global warming, and he has even proposed cutting America’s nuclear stockpiles, a precondition for reviving the nuclear non-proliferation regime. But in fundamental ways, he, too, remains the child of Henry Cabot Lodge. He rarely mentions globalization or discusses threats from financial contagion to pandemic disease, which can be addressed only through cooperation, not conflict. Instead, he advertises the war on terror as a new Cold War, with a state—Iran—at its source. And he leads a party that remains more interested in tearing down international treaties and institutions than in building them up.

Against McCain’s kinder, gentler Lodgeism, Barack Obama has an opportunity to sketch a different outline of America’s relationship to the world. At its core should be the contention that far from being out of date, Wilson’s vision has never been more relevant. For collective security to work, Wilson acknowledged, great power antagonisms would first have to diminish; the old blood-soaked rivalries that had defined world politics for centuries would have to fade. To some degree, they have. In 2004, the U.S. intelligence community’s in-house think tank, the National Intelligence Council, declared that “the likelihood of great power conflict escalating into total war in the next fifteen years is lower than at any time in the past century.” To be sure, America competes with Russia for preeminence in parts of the former USSR, and with China in East Asia. But these are not revolutionary regimes like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Russia, or Maoist China, which reject the essential legitimacy of the existing world order. They seem less keen to overthrow today’s economically open, rule-based, relatively peaceful international system than to profit from it.

If the relative diminution of great power hostility makes collective security possible, globalization makes it necessary. In his day, Wilson assumed that all nations possessed a shared interest in averting the threat of war. Today, however, they face a catalogue of dangers that fit even more naturally into the collective security paradigm, because, unlike the zero-sum logic of warfare, global warming, pandemic disease, and financial collapse benefit no sovereign state and threaten all. The same logic applies to al-Qaeda-style terrorism. Rogue officials in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan may be complicit in jihadist violence, but al-Qaeda imperils these governments far more than it sustains them. Like global warming, pandemic disease, and financial meltdown, but unlike tanks or infantry, regimes can loose jihadist terror, but they cannot control it.

The nuclear non-proliferation regime also operates on the basis of collective security. Wilson hoped nations would shrink their military arsenals, relying instead on the League for their defense. In the 1940s, Franklin Roosevelt amended this goal, anticipating a club of big powers—which he dubbed the “four policemen”—that would retain a monopoly on the world’s firepower. Duly armed, the policemen would keep the peace. The architects of today’s nuclear non-proliferation regime designed it to work the same way. The nuclear powers seek to prevent the proliferation of nuclear arms by helping non-nuclear states gain access to cheap, peaceful nuclear energy, by pledging that they themselves will reduce their stockpiles, and by punishing nations that break the rules.

For adherents of the balance of power, this makes little sense. America, they argue, ought to oppose the spread of nuclear weapons to its foes but tolerate—or even encourage—their spread to its friends. (In fact, many conservatives have blessed India’s nuclear program as a counterweight to China’s, and urged Japan to go nuclear for the same purpose.) But in a globalized world, where nuclear technology and expertise have spread—or could spread—to dictatorial, unstable countries such as North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, nuclear balances of power have become more dangerous than ever before, and the need for common rules to prevent them even more urgent.

If today’s threats are less zero-sum, America’s responses must be as well. The Kyoto agreement on global warming, crippled at birth in part by U.S. opposition, will soon expire, and while a continued failure to address global warming will not harm all nations equally, it will eventually harm them all. Thus, America and other rich nations must embrace binding emissions reductions and, in so doing, persuade rising economies such as China and India to follow their lead. Curbing the growth of nuclear states in the most violent corners of the world will require a commitment among members of the nuclear club to slash their own stockpiles, devise a more robust inspections regime, and guarantee a more reliable flow of peaceful nuclear energy. Averting pandemic disease requires a World Health Organization with the resources to identify and contain new viruses before they spread across continents. A new bargain on trade, in which rich countries open their doors to third world agriculture, boost development aid, and write off debt, while poor governments invest in health, education, and anti-corruption drives, could advance all of these goals.

Confronting these challenges will require inventing new collective security institutions and reinventing the ones founded during the era of FDR and Truman. The UN Security Council, for instance, will either embrace as permanent members rising powers such as India and Brazil or it will become irrelevant. Similarly, in a world where India and China have a greater say, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank will lose influence if a European forever presides over the former and an American over the latter. Finally, if the U.S.—with Democrats in the lead—abandons its commitment to free trade, which Wilson and Roosevelt believed essential not only to prosperity but to peace itself, the result will not only be greater poverty, but a greater likelihood of war. Instead, America should deepen and broaden its ties to the global economy and, through a network of labor and environmental standards, further the cause not merely of profit and peace, but of justice as well.

A renewed commitment to collective security—to solving common problems and abiding by common rules—also offers the surest way to restore America’s legitimacy. A recent survey of 15 nations by WorldPublicOpinion.org revealed that only two countries (Argentina and the Palestinian Authority) wanted the U.S. to withdraw from world affairs. In fact, when asked who they expect to take the lead in countering global threats, non-Americans still point to the United States (along with the UN). As Steve Kull of the Program on International Policy Attitudes put it recently, “Despite the negative views of U.S. foreign policy, publics around the world do not want the U.S. to disengage from international affairs but rather to participate in a more cooperative and multilateral fashion.” Even commentators such as The New America Foundation’s Parag Khanna, who predict intensifying competition between the United States, Europe, and China, argue that for the U.S. to sustain its power it must revive efforts to solve common problems, which, in turn, can help restore America’s good name.



If Democrats forthrightly embrace collective security, conservative Republicans will attack them as naïve, as they have ever since Lodge’s day. Fox News will flood the airwaves with claims that Democrats would request “permission slips” from a corrupt and downright malevolent international bureaucracy before defending the homeland. But in 2008, with Americans increasingly supportive of greater global cooperation, but still baffled by what exactly it is that Democrats believe, Democrats ought to welcome that debate. It certainly trumps the alternative: a Republican assault on Democrats for having no foreign policy convictions at all. If the charge sticks to Obama, Americans may enter the voting booth in 2008, as they did in 2004, discontented with the GOP’s foreign policy vision but at least believing it to be intelligible and sincerely held.

Conviction ought not to be the exclusive property of the GOP. On issue after issue, in fact, Americans have shown themselves remarkably receptive to collective security. In the fall of 2006, when WorldPublicOpinion.org and the Program on International Policy Attitudes asked Americans how the U.S. ought to deal with terrorism and the environment, 69 percent said “it will be increasingly necessary for the U.S. to work through international institutions,” up 13 points since the late nineties. By contrast, only 23 percent said the U.S. should respond on its own because “international institutions are slow and bureaucratic and often used as places for other countries to criticize and block the U.S.” In a separate poll, nearly 70 percent of Americans backed U.S. participation in the International Criminal Court, even when informed that it could prosecute American troops. More than 80 percent backed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and an international agreement banning land mines. Large majorities favored American participation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Kyoto global warming treaty. Even the United Nations, which, according to conventional wisdom, Americans either distrust or despise, enjoys a deep reservoir of public support.

Perhaps most important, collective security is what Barack Obama genuinely seems to believe. Unlike McCain, who describes jihadist terrorism as the “transcendent” challenge of our age, Obama rarely speaks about terrorism in isolation. Instead, he typically mentions it in tandem with other transnational threats like global warming, poverty, and disease. Absent a common theme, such breadth could be dangerous: McCain’s singular focus may be more easily grasped; Obama’s broader catalogue could end up sounding less like a vision than a list. Collective security offers a way of linking these disparate concerns and telling a coherent story about today’s problems and how to solve them. That narrative flows from an almost century-old liberal foreign policy tradition, and from the faith in cooperation that underlies liberal politics more generally—the more optimistic vision of human nature that distinguished Wilson from Lodge, and which still distinguishes liberals from conservatives today. It captures what liberals have been trying to articulate for many years now, but have lacked the vocabulary to say.

In 1916, Woodrow Wilson talked of “a common order, a common justice and a common peace.” In the 2007 Foreign Affairs article in which he set out his foreign policy views, Barack Obama wrote about “common threats,” “common security,” and a “common humanity.” America’s fate and the world’s fate, both men were trying to say, are ultimately indivisible. We rise together or fall together. Never has the world so badly needed to hear these words from an American president, and never have the American people been so prepared to embrace them. Wilson’s dream has been too long deferred. The time to revive it is now.


Peter Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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