Visions of peace are not always easy to conceive especially during times of a large-scale conflict such as a war, or even a total war. Considering the suffering and other horrific aspects World War I brought to Europe and to a lesser extent also the American people, makes it even more remarkable that the American president of that time – Woodrow Wilson – developed such an optimistic and idealistic view of peace for a European continent that was tied up in a war for hegemony and occupied with power struggles. In his vision for peace, Wilson was convinced that Europe could leave this struggle for preeminence behind and instead focus on reconciliation and cooperation.
Wilson envisioned a new era of international relations. This era would be characterized by freedom of the sees, disarmament, the rule of international law, the right of self-determination of every nation, and a new form of cooperation to be achieved under the creation of an international organization under the name of the “League of Nations.” This organization would provide the powers of the world a forum for the peaceful settlement of their conflicts, therefore replacing fighting with diplomacy. In addition, Wilson denounced the aggrandizement of territory as a legitimate rationale for war. Instead increasing their power through expansion, he believed that states should benefit and become wealthier through open, free trade and cooperation on a number of other international matters. In addition, Wilson’s ideology of peace depicted US entry into World War I as a fight for democracy. He believed that fighting for the cause of freedom and spreading democracy around the globe would make the world a safer place.
Of great importance to his philosophy was also his vision of a “peace without victory.” Wilson believed that in order to achieve long lasting peace in Europe in particular, but in the world in general, nations needed to ensure an equality of combatants. That would mean neither celebrating a victor nor humiliating the losing party to the war. He already pursued this policy at an early stage of the First World War, sending notes to the belligerent governments in 1916. He asked them to consider peace and negotiations. To facilitate the latter, he even dispatched Colonel House to London in 1916.
Wilson’s vision as expressed in his famous speech of the Fourteen Points was not entirely successful immediately following World War I, as for example he was unable to see his vision of a “peace without victory” come true or failed to rally US support for the League of Nations. Nevertheless, Wilson’s ideology can be called a great success in that it has given rise to the liberal theory of international relations, further instituting the thinking that cooperation is in state’s best interest. In addition, Wilson established the “democratic peace theory” a fundamental theory of international relations that continues to be seen in the world today. Central to this theory is the assumption that democratic nations will not fight other nations and therefore it is beneficial for peace to spread democracy around the globe. Looking back in the past decades, we can see the US spreading democracy in the former Soviet Union areas after the Cold War, and more recently, spreading democratic institutions to Iraq. Wilson therefore played a great role in world affairs, making an impact that spread far beyond his presidency and continues to influence our thinking today.