Moral Diplomacy In Modern Foreign Policy

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Of the foreign policies proposed by American presidents in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Woodrow Wilson’s conception of moral diplomacy has had the most far-reaching effects. Indeed, one still sees echoes of the guiding principles of moral diplomacy in the present day. Although Wilson’s proposals were intended to address and improve diplomatic relations with other nations in the Western Hemisphere – specifically emerging Latin American powers – the overall themes of Wilson’s policy are applicable to the United States’ involvement in other regions as well.

Woodrow Wilson hinted at a move away from President Taft’s policy of dollar diplomacy (in which the US extended influence through international investment; this policy is still evident today as well) during the 1912 election. Wilson cemented his goals with an address at Independence Hall in Philadelphia entitled, “The Meaning of Liberty.” During his speech, Wilson affirms his belief in democracy as the cornerstone of civilization and compels his audience to support measures which would uphold democratic ideals in other nations. Wilson intended to aid other democratic powers, increase the total number of democratic nations worldwide, and economically disable nondemocratic nations. With regard to this last point, Wilson viewed nondemocratic nations as a threat to the United States and he aimed to neutralize that threat with economic injury.

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One sees these notions in political and diplomatic rhetoric from the First World War to the present day. Wilson relied on ideas about American Exceptionalism – which dictates that the United States holds a place of distinction and, as such, should play a significant role in spreading liberty, freedom, and democracy – and his personal opposition to imperialism to undergird his policy of moral diplomacy. Historically, the United States has entered alliances with other nations who have shifted toward a more democratic mode of governance and work within a primarily capitalist system: Great Britain and other nations in the Commonwealth, France, South Korea, Israel, etc. By doing so, they uphold two of the pillars which support so-called American Exceptionalism: democracy and free-trade. Conversely, these alliances typically arise in times of agitation with or outright conflict against blocs of nations in which the transfer of power is nondemocratic and the economic system is bound to the state and does not rely on free trade.

In the last century, the United States has provided economic and military aid to nations who are threatened by fascist powers attempting imperialistic coups – as with the two World Wars. The United States has also actively attempted to prevent the spread of communism and placed economic sanctions on communist nations. The concept of moral diplomacy was certainly evident in the United States’ diplomatic dealings with the Soviet Union and it’s allied throughout the Cold War as well as its active economic sanctions against China, Cuba, and other communist states. The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East have been perpetuated, in part, by rhetoric in which American leaders claim outright that they are spreading democracy. The most recent of these conflicts are fueled by leaders who infuse instances of diplomatic discord with emotional pleas about morality and the necessity of fighting against rampant human rights violations. These are worthy causes, but they are tinged with hypocrisy. Just as resource extraction caused Wilson to intervene in Mexico in a less than democratic way, the United States’ current friendly relations with the Saudi Arabian monarchy and decidedly unfriendly relations with the Republic of Iran draw criticism and accusations of capital-driven hypocrisy. Moral diplomacy is certainly alive and well in modern U.S. foreign policy and so are the criticisms which initially accompanied the idea.

  • Fluck, Winifred. Re-Framing the Transnational Turn in American Studies. Dartmouth: UP New England, 2011.
  • Wilson Woodrow. “Address at Independence Hall: “The Meaning of Liberty,” July 4, 1914. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=65381.
  • “Woodrow Wilson: Foreign Affairs.” Miller Center of Public Affairs. Accessed November 02, 2016. http://millercenter.org/president/biography/wilson-foreign-affairs.

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