Almost exactly 100 years ago, the United States embarked on a century of interventionism — with a big assist from Russian revolutionaries.
In 1917, World War I had been raging in Europe for 2½ years. President Woodrow Wilson had been casting around for a way to broker a peace; “white civilization,” as he put it, was in danger of destroying itself. German submarine warfare against merchant ships was pushing the United States closer to joining the fight, but plenty of Americans, including Wilson himself, resisted the notion.
Then came street protests in Russia and the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II on March 15. Almost all Americans greeted the upheaval as the dawning of a new age of democracy, and the United States was the first nation to recognize Russia’s new Provisional Government.
Ambassador David Francis donned his formal diplomatic attire and rode in a sleigh across snowbound Petrograd — today’s St. Petersburg — to bestow America’s blessing on Russia’s grateful new authorities. In American eyes, the United States was extending a hand of friendship from the world’s oldest democracy to its newest.
Americans seized on the revolution in Russia as a call to arms — a crusade to defend democracy, and to extend it. In a twinkling, the world war was no longer about a clash of imperial powers, but about an ideal. Russia, allied with Britain, France and Italy in the war, gained a new partner just three weeks after the czar’s abdication: On April 6, the United States declared war on Germany and its kaiser.
“You have done a great thing nobly!” wrote Wilson’s son-in-law, Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, the day after the president’s war message. “I firmly believe that it is God’s will that America should do this transcendent service for humanity throughout the world and that you are his chosen instrument.”
In Paris, Georges Clemenceau, soon to be named prime minister, was struck by Wilson’s audacity in placing “human rights” at the heart of his policy. Raymond Poincaré, the president of France, sent Wilson a warm and heartfelt message. “This war,” he wrote, “would not have had its full significance if the United States had not been drawn into it.”
In Rome, a joint letter signed by 68 members of Parliament read, “Your message is not addressed to the United States alone but to all humanity and awakens noblest instincts among free nations. Your message is the hymn of freedom.”
As it turned out, Russia’s democratic — if unelected — government lasted less than eight months, overcome by a Communist coup. But Wilson’s declaration continued to resonate. Americans learned to talk about preserving “Western values,” rather than “white civilization.”
For sure, there have been plenty of moments since then when the United States fell considerably short of the ideal in its foreign affairs, when accusations of hypocrisy had real sting – but the essence of the hypocrisy was that the ideal itself remained. When Wilson proclaimed that the “world must be made safe for democracy,” he set what has been the objective of American foreign policy ever since — at least until 2017.
Now, under President Trump, the promotion of democracy and human rights appears to have been taken off even the back burner. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was absent when the State Department published its annual human rights report last month. As my colleague Amanda Erickson points out, American embassies under Trump are not pushing a human rights agenda. Trump publicly admires “strong” leaders, Russia’s Vladimir Putin foremost among them.
Over the years, Putin has been quick to see an American hand fomenting popular protests in Libya, Syria, Georgia, Ukraine and even Russia itself. He overstates the matter, but those claims are a bit of a backhanded compliment to administrations in Washington. The lesson Russian authorities took from the overthrow of the czar in 1917 is that mass protests from below are the most dangerous threat to those in power, and that helps explain why Putin has reacted so vehemently to potential uprisings.
But the days when that accusation of American meddling had at least some plausibility seem to be over. Trump has said nothing to suggest that the conditions of people living in other countries are of any concern to the United States or its government. “In short, the prospects for serious, effective U.S. engagement by Trump to support democracy and human rights abroad look dismal,” wrote Thomas Carothers, a democracy and rule of law scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in January.
The country is now embarking on a new chapter in its relations with the world.
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