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Even at the time, people recognized that Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points were a break from the past (source). Wilson imagined a world in which countries would treat each other fairly, like colleagues.
But, as anyone who has seen The Godfather knows, even reasonable people sometimes want to kill each other.
Critics said his vision required people to be angels. Maybe, as a former university president, he had it in mind that world leaders would always act like Princeton professors. Unfortunately, dictators and imperialists don't always want to toss the football on the quad.
The Fourteen Points had a pretty specific vision of the world, but without much detail on how to achieve it.
Wilson's goal was to slow down or stop conquest and aggressive imperialism—at least as it related to Europe and the West.
When Wilson drops the words "conquest and aggrandizement" (Intro.2), he's talking about imperialism. It's pretty hard to define that word, but Wilson's two-part phrase gets the job done.
Basically, an imperial nation is trying to make itself larger and more powerful.
Imperialism was all the rage during the 1800s. Britain created an empire that spread all over the world. Meanwhile, the U.S. expanded its territory to the West, often violently conquering or assimilating Native Americans. By 1918, however, Woodrow Wilson decided that imperialism was out of style.
With the various territorial arrangements, calls for self-determination, and guarantees of sovereignty in the Fourteen Points, he wanted to convince everyone to be happy with what they had. Instead of, you know, pushing it to the limit.
World War I did not end with the dissolution of all the world's empires—only the ones that ended up losing.
For the time, Woodrow Wilson's view of the rights of conquered people was progressive, even though it appears less so today.
Since Woodrow Wilson's time, American leaders have dreamed of making democracy spread across the world. Ever heard of Vietnam? Or the war in Iraq? In both cases, the United States intervened to try to make countries free from regimes America didn't like.
When Wilson lobbied Congress to approve entering World War I, he had a simple message: "the world must be made safe for democracy" (source). In that speech, he went on to call the United States "champions of the rights of mankind."
In Wilson's mind, this war was about making the world a freer place. Was he right? Yes and no. The United States saw itself as the world's guidance counselor. But the European powers saw themselves more as associate principals—it was sort of like the good cop, bad cop routine, only without the cops working together.
Woodrow Wilson portrayed America's involvement in WWI as a crusade for freedom, but only after America had been directly threatened.
Wilson's justification for going to war—to make the world free and safe—became the standard for future American wars.
There's no question that the world's most powerful nations suffered during World War I. France, Britain, Germany, and Russia collectively lost millions of people from fighting and disease. But what about the little guys caught in the middle? It wasn't just the superpowers, but also small countries like Belgium and Serbia that felt the crunch—without much ability to do anything about it.
Wilson's idea for a League of Nations included giving everyone a seat at the table. The Fourteen Points embody the idea of a global community, a humanistic conception of nations as neighbors, not The Other. But in geopolitics, sometimes size does matter. When it came to the actual League of Nations, not the idea, the countries with the most guns still ended up calling the shots.
The Fourteen Points are the first significant instance of America seeing itself as part of a global community.
Wilson realized that for a global community to work, large, powerful nations would have to agree to protect smaller nations.