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The Necessity of Intervention: A Foreign Policy Analysis of the United States and World War I
“International relations is not a constant state of war… it is a state of relentless security competition, with the possibility of war always in the background.”
-- John Mearsheimer[i]
Foreign policy often implores the inquiry, is war necessary to solve foreign policy challenges? It is not, however, the capability to wage, and win, conflict is necessary. War is often the insurance plan in the periphery of successful foreign policy, ready to be called upon when foreign policy no longer suits national interests or effectively ensures security. Prosperity and principles are essential, but security is the ultimate objective of foreign policy, and nations achieve security and peace through power. Political and military strength remain the currencies of power. They are crucial to a strong national defense, to credible deterrence and to other effective means of statecraft.[ii] As the ancient Greek historian Thucydides wrote in The History of the Peloponnesian War, “the strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept.”[iii]
While the United States entered into “The Great War” in 1917 for several reasons, this unprecedented act of intervention introduced the international community to the U.S. as a global military and economic power for the first time. This essay will examine the U.S. transition from unilateral policy and neutrality, to involvement in WWI as a case study to examine war as a tool of foreign policy. Regardless of geographical displacement, US intervention became a necessity to ensure the progressive concept of American exceptionalism that, eventually, suited both classical realist and liberal internationalist ideologies. This essay is structured to begin with a short overview of theory applied to foreign policy, a historical context to demonstrate U.S. unilateral polices pre-WWI, transition to U.S. intervention and conclude with an analysis focused on the application of warfare in support of U.S. national interests.
Realism and Liberalism Applied to Foreign Policy
“To expect states of any sort to rest reliably at peace in a condition of anarchy would require the uniform and enduring perfection of all of them.”
-- Kenneth Waltz[iv]
Conflict has been as much a constant in human history as any human experience. As Kenneth Waltz states, “there is no peace in a condition of anarchy,” and there will always be a form of anarchy as long as human nature is a variable in the complex international system. Many international relations theorists have applied the perspective of theoretical framework to understand how and why friction is created within society. For neorealist writers such as John Mearsheimer, international politics is not characterized by these constant wars, but nevertheless a relentless security competition.[v] Naturally, states codify and execute this external security competition, among other cooperative measures, through foreign policy.
While liberal internationalism developed later in the 20th century, the original concept, coined “Wilsonianism,” championed by Woodrow Wilson, served a key role to provide the theoretical framework to sway the American attitude towards intervention. Fundamental to the concept of liberalism is that pursuing international cooperation is neither naïve nor dangerous, but rather a rational way to reduce risks and make gains that not even the most powerful state could achieve on its own.[vi]
Wilson believed that in order to ultimately solve domestic challenges, states must attempt to resolve the international challenges through foreign policy. For Wilson, this involved the existential European threat of WWI. An application of his idealist policy abroad would initially take the form of economic and military support in favor of those states who modeled democratic ideals and principles relative to the U.S. While this progressive approach was in line with Wilson’s liberal internationalist theory of strengthening alliances it also coincided with those in the United States who developed a concern for the state of American security against the growing threat of Germany. While U.S. national interest will never fully synchronize with the interests of the international community, the inherent facts of systematic globalization since the early 19th century had ensured that U.S. and international interests had become increasingly interrelated.[vii]
“Europe has a set of primary interest which to us have none or a very remote relation…the great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have as little political connection as possible…there can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation.”
-- George Washington’s Farewell Address, September 17, 1796
The 19th century marked a distinct period of U.S. unilateral strategy during which foreign policy consisted primarily of economic agreements to maximize trade though commerce. While even the founding fathers recognized a need for foreign policy, both the American public and politicians perceived European issues as “old world rivalries.” For a young democracy, recently free of its unwanted ties to the European states, the United States prioritized domestic issues, national defense and the prosperity of citizens within its territorial boundaries.[viii] This period of domestic progress enabled the United States to shape the political and national environment for future success by avoiding foreign conflicts and pursuing economic gain, with over 70 percent of treaties signed in the 19th century strictly related to commerce.[ix]
Transition to Interventionism
"The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make."
-- Woodrow Wilson, State of War with Germany, Address to Congress, April 2, 1917.
The U.S. is often incorrectly referred to as an “isolationist” state pre-WW1. This is erroneous considering the U.S. actively pursued international trade as the economy grew and exports flourished. However, the U.S. was not was keen to intervene in foreign military affairs that did not directly challenge U.S. power, prosperity or security. In the case of WWI, there were several significant events, paired with the leadership of a president guided by principle, which formed the overwhelming force capable of drawing the U.S. into a war of “distant affairs.”
In June of 1914 a Serbian nationalist infamously instigated WWI through the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Through a previously arranged, and complex structure of European allegiances during an already tense period, this assassination quickly drew the entirety of Europe into a continent-wide conflict. The U.S. saw these affairs as European issues that were not of concern to national defense and security. Wilson upheld his position as a liberal institutionalist and thought that the best way for the U.S. to assume the mantle of leadership postwar in the international community was through neutrality.[x] Additionally, the U.S. immediately seized the opportunity to export goods and weapons to support Great Britain and France, simultaneously supporting the U.S. economy while remaining neutral.
One significant event that is often incorrectly identified as the cause of U.S. intervention in WWI is the sinking of RMS Lusitania, a British cruise liner that was carrying both war supplies and 128 Americans, in 1915.[xi] While this did serve as a contributing factor to U.S. intervention, the simple fact that it would be another two years until the U.S. declared war clearly demonstrates that the Lusitania was not as much of a significant event as some may say. U.S. citizens simply didn’t feel that the sinking of the Lusitania was a threat to their welfare and security.
Several other contributing factors served as the culminating events to align a divided society with Wilson’s ideals. Wilson won his second term under the accomplishment of keeping the U.S. out of WWI during his first term, but this would only last so long. In January of 1917 the Germans resumed unrestricted U-boat warfare, immediately engaging a multitude of U.S. and neutral shipping vessels. During the same timeframe as the initial exposure of U.S. vessels to unrestricted U-boat warfare, the U.K. translated and transmitted a document to Washington D.C. known as the “Zimmerman telegram.” This telegram, originating from the German ambassador, directly proposed Mexico with an alliance against the U.S. in the event the U.S. entered WWI. If no prior events during WWI had brought the national security threat to the doorstep of America, these two provided closure of inevitable intervention.
Peace and power were not the only principles at stake now for the U.S. The Bolsheviks withdrew from WWI following the Russian Revolution in 1917, effectively removing Allied opposition on the Eastern front. This allowed the Axis powers to employ all of their military force on their western front, which would quickly overwhelm the U.K. and France. If the U.K. and France were to be defeated, they would default on their significant loans owed to the U.S. Central to these four factors is the plea to both the American commitment to principles of democratic freedoms, as popularly demonstrated by interventionists and progressives, and the reinforced conservative ideal of realism and national security.
Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. quickly transitioned from considering WWI to be a “distant, European affair,” to recognizing that they were already an active actor in WWI and their security, prosperity and principles were being challenged. It was evident that “direct threats to the U.S. security drove home the point that isolationism was no longer possible. Germany, as president Wilson had made the case, had ‘thrust’ the war upon the U.S.” The decision to wage war was declared with an overwhelming 82-6 in the Senate and 373-50 in the House.[xii]
“In order for a state to wage war, the passions which break forth in War must already have a latent existence in the people”
-- Carl Von Clausewitz[xiii]
States engage in war to satisfy their human need for safety and security. When no other options remain in the employment of foreign policy, and a state’s security is challenged, it is the responsibility of that state to be capable of producing, and escalating, the appropriate amount of violence to ensure the security of its citizens. Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. government utilized a variety of techniques to remain neutral in WWI while attempting to broker peace in Europe and even attempted a rapprochement with Germany after they resumed unrestricted U-boat warfare. The following mobilization, institution of selective service and redirection of national priorities to support WWI marked an unprecedented level of support for a national objective. WWI remains a shining moment in U.S. history during which a divided nation unified, for a variety of reasons, to collectively sacrifice and achieve a common goal that ultimately affected the outcome of a world war being waged on another continent. While the reasons for U.S. intervention range from power to prosperity, through President Wilsons’s leadership it was ultimately U.S. principles that led to the support of the allied powers, establishing the subsequent leadership role of the United States for decades to follow.
Baylis, John, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens. The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. 7th Ed. ed. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Gompert, D., Binnendjik H., and Lin, B. Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn. RAND, 2014.
Jentleson, Bruce W. American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century (5th Ed.). New York: Norton, 2014.
Von Clausewitz, C., Howard, M., & Paret, P. On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. eBook
Waltz, Kenneth. Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. eBook.
- Bruce W. Jentleson, American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century (5th Ed.). (New York: Norton, 2014), 10.
- Ibid., 10.
- Ibid., 8.
- Kenneth Waltz. Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. eBook.), 9.
- John Baylis, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens, The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. 7th Ed. ed, (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2017), 242.
- Bruce W. Jentleson, American Foreign Policy, 12.
- Ibid., 9.
- Bruce W. Jentleson, American Foreign Policy, 100.
- Ibid., 100.
- D. Gompert, H. Binnendjik, and B. Lin, Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn. (RAND, 2014), 73.
- Ibid., 73.
- D. Gompert, H. Binnendjik, and B. Lin, Blinders, Blunders, and Wars, 73.
- Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 33.