Idealism and Realism in the Fourteen Points

It often seems as if principles and power politics are at constant odds. Most political decision-makers are driven by both, but they constantly have to weigh one against the other – should they follow their convictions or do the gritty realpolitik that gets them what they want? Another common notion is that idealism holds as long as one is not in a position of power, after which it makes way for realism.[1] I argue, however, that idealism and realism do not have to stand opposed, but in fact, are often intertwined in political decision-making. For that argument, let’s have a look at the “Fourteen Points” Woodrow Wilson suggested at the end of World War I, in his speech to Congress on January 8, 1918. After a quick look at the general ideas of the “Fourteen Points”, we’ll see how they were intended to serve short-term (mostly realist) and long-term (both idealist and realist) goals and what became of them.

What’s in the Fourteen Points?

When Wilson delivered his speech to Congress in January 1918, World War I had been raging for three and a half years already. The United States, however, had initially followed its long tradition of abstaining from the European power struggles. Only when the disputes with Germany over the rules for submarine warfare flared up again in 1917 and could – different from first time in 1915 – not be resolved, the United States entered the war. By early 1918, the United States was still building up its army and slowly sending the first units to France, but elsewhere a flurry of events changed the scene. In Russia, the Bolsheviks had seized power under Lenin’s slogan of peace, land, and bread. Russia had ceased fighting against Germany, and the two countries were busily negotiating the terms for a separate peace. In this situation, Wilson proposed the Fourteen Points as the fundament for a general peace.
The Fourteen Points offered a sharp break from the practices of the pre-war system. Great power secret diplomacy was to be replaced by open negotiations and a general association between all nations. In addition, the world economy was to be organized according to the principles of classical liberalism, most importantly free trade. Most of the Fourteen Points, however, dealt with national self-determination, specified for many different countries and peoples. They mostly concerned the multiethnic Central Powers Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (while not being specified for the equally multiethnic Russia or the Irish in the United Kingdom), but in a reduced form, they were also offered for the colonies.[2] Except for Alsace-Lorraine which was to be given from Germany to France, the Fourteen Points did not include any demands for annexations or reparations. The implicit peace offer to Germany was therefore a quite mild one, much different from the various ideas all European powers, trapped by the chauvinistic demands of their own populations, had put forward over the years of war.

Short-term Goals

Wilson’s speech made quite a stir – as the president had intended. First, the peoples of the multiethnic empires, usually war-weary and alienated from their central government, felt empowered to pursue their own nation-states. Especially the many ethnic groups in Austria-Hungary were susceptible to these ideas – from the Czechs and the Croats to the Italian minority.
Also, Wilson seized the initiative for the peace process by offering soft terms to the Germans. After three and a half years of heavy fighting on low supplies, most Germans were willing give up fighting and to come to the negotiation table with someone who’d offer amiable terms. This is also the way in which Paths of Glory (GMT Games, Ted Raicer) uses the Fourteen Points as an event card: Only the Allies can offer terms of peace thereafter, and they gain a precious victory point. Incidentally, the Paths of Glory rulebook describes the Fourteen Points as “Wilson’s idealistic statement of US war aims”, seeing no realist purposes to it at all.[3]
While this was a step closer to peace, the Fourteen Points also aimed at destroying a potential settlement of hostilities: Wilson desperately needed to sabotage the German-Russian negotiations of a peace in the East that were going on in Brest-Litovsk. Russia was too valuable an asset to the Allies for letting go of her – no matter if the country was ruled by a Tsar, a bourgeois government, or the Bolsheviks. If Germany could forge an agreement with Russia, the Germans would be able to not only improve their perennially dire supply situation, but also free up their troops from the Eastern Front and throw everything they had at the French and British in the West to win the war before there would be a substantial number of American divisions.[4]

Long-term Goals

The Fourteen Points did not only concern themselves with winning the war, however. Wilson also wanted to win the peace.[5] For this, his idea was essentially to make the world more like America: The reduction of armaments Wilson proposed was in line with the traditionally tiny standing armed forces the United States employed – for example, before World War I, the United States had only 18% of the French military manpower despite being two and a half times as populous as France.
Interestingly enough, Wilson saw the way to peace in terms of the economy: Free trade should connect the world and make nations too dependent on one another for risking a war against each other. The father of liberal capitalist economics, Adam Smith, had already argued for a peace through trade. Except for bringing peace, this would also allow the highly productive American economy to take a larger share of the global markets. Wilson also proposed full freedom of the seas for commercial activities, which would turn out to be the most controversial suggestion among the Allied powers in the Fourteen Points – Britain’s Royal Navy had been able to secure its own trade (and destroy that of others) since at least the Napoleonic Wars, so it had nothing to gain but a powerful instrument to lose (think of its blockade of Germany during the entirety of World War I) from such a rule.

The Outcome


Woodrow Wilson’s official presidential portrait.

The Fourteen Points had mixed success. While they fostered ethnic dissension in the Central Powers, they were not instrumental for it. Wilson’s attempt to prevent a German-Russian separate peace flat-out failed. At least reaching out for a “peace without victory” to Germany was influential in the German leaders’ decision to cease hostilities and enter negotiations in the fall of 1918 when they could have easily kept fighting for another year. That the Treaty of Versailles was much harsher on Germany than the Fourteen Points would brew nationalist resentment among the Germans that made them receptive to the revisionist foreign policy Hitler advocated.
In the long run however, the Fourteen Points as a key document of Wilson’s foreign policy went on to shape the world. Wilson achieved much more success with his idealist goals than with his realist ones. Unintentionally, the Fourteen Points legitimized decolonization and provided the colonized peoples with a strong argument against their colonizers. They showed for the first time which kind of global power the United States could be, and they were a fundament of liberal internationalism as the American foreign policy doctrine. Since then, most American administrations have tried to foster democracy and capitalism and have been willing to intervene abroad for these goals. Maybe even more importantly, the Fourteen Points opened the gate for an international system based on rules and institutions (like the League of Nations, founded after World War I, and our modern United Nations).
Nothing of this happened fast. After World War I, the colonial empires of Britain and France kept growing. The United States turned back to her tradition of isolationism after Wilson’s presidency ended in 1921, and didn’t even join the League of Nations for which Wilson had advocated so much. Only during World War II and its immediate aftermath did the seeds of the Fourteen Points grow into the institutionalized global system with the liberal internationalist United States as its preeminent power. Today, under the auspices of growing isolationism in the USA, it is questionable if this system will prevail. If not, a new order might be created with the help of a document that can link idealism and realpolitik together and make them reinforce each other – like the Fourteen Points did.

Further Reading

You can find the original text of Wilson’s speech to Congress including the Fourteen Points here.
An interesting document that shows Wilson’s own interpretation of the Fourteen Points is analyzed here: Snell, John L.: Wilson on Germany and the Fourteen Points, in: Journal of Modern History 26, 4, 1954, S. 364—369. You can read the article online on JSTOR (requires a free-of-charge registration which I would recommend for anyone interested in academic history writing anyway).
If you’re interested in the school of international relations theory that was inspired by the ideas of Wilson’s foreign policy, this is an inspiring introduction: Keohane, Robert O.: International Institutions and State Power. Essays in International Relations Theory, Westview Press, Boulder, CO 1989.

Game Referenced

Paths of Glory (GMT Games, Ted Raicer)


1. This view is for example implied in Niall Ferguson’s biography of Henry Kissinger, whose first volume is titled “Kissinger. 1923—1968: The Idealist”, 1968 being the year of Nixon’s presidential election which brought Kissinger into government. I presume that the second volume will have a title along the lines of “Kissinger: The Realist”.
2. Technically, this included all colonies, but it was implicitly understood to include only the German colonies and the Ottoman possessions in the Middle East.
3. I am no expert on World War I games, but this is – to my knowledge – the only game that uses the Fourteen Points as a game element. I believe it is a general problem of games about wars that many of them focus solely on the operational aspects of the wars, leaving them in a bubble unconnected to politics or society. That, however, would be a topic for an article of its own.
4. This gamble of a last big offensive is precisely what German commander Ludendorff would attempt in the Spring Offensive of 1918 – beginning less than three weeks after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had ended the war in the East.
5. That should be part of the basic strategic considerations in every war. It surprises all the more how many wars are waged without a clear idea how to proceed after a military victory is secured – the Iraq invasion of 2003 being the most glaring in recent history.

6 thoughts on “Idealism and Realism in the Fourteen Points

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