Ark of the Liberties: America and the World
by Ted Widmer
Reviewed by Art Winslow
Los Angeles Times
Woodrow Wilson is a tip-of-the-tongue name in foreign policy circles these days, largely because the members of the Bush administration are seen as revamped Wilsonians. Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, in his recent book Statecraft, identifies them as such, citing their belief in the transformative power of the United States and its role as an example and their conviction that divine providence guides their work -- with the profound difference, Ross notes, that Wilson "believed fervently in collective security and international law," which would limit national sovereignty and also "constitute a practical and a moral inhibition on the use of force."
Similarly, Council on Foreign Relations fellow Walter Russell Mead contends, in Power, Terror, Peace, and War, that the new claque of Wilsonians, neoconservatives who have dominated Republican foreign-policy debates in recent years, have "radically restructured the Wilsonian agenda" and that the secular shapers of progressive internationalism have lost out to evangelicals and other fundamentalists, who argue "that only a much more aggressive pursuit of American ideological values can deal with the security threats we now face" and promote "specifically Christian rather than liberal secular humanist values in foreign policy."
The persistence of this blend of idealism and religious ideology in politics -- along with a belief in American exceptionalism and its accompanying missionary outlook -- is a recurring theme in Ted Widmer's Ark of the Liberties. "In many ways," he asserts, "we still live in Wilson's world." Whereas Wilson "is often given credit for inventing a new way of thinking about U.S. foreign policy, it is probably more accurate to say that he tapped into old feelings that had never entirely disappeared." (Those feelings went against the isolationism of his time: Wilson's post-World War I idea of a coalition of the willing was the League of Nations, but Congress balked at U.S. membership.) Ark of the Liberties is in part a search for the roots of those Wilsonian impulses, which Widmer traces to pre-Revolutionary days, and in part a summary of the foreign-policy orientation of administrations from the country's creation to the present, often as evidenced in officials' speechifying. The gamut of American history, from George Washington's farewell address (in which he argued for a foreign policy of neutrality) to nation-building in Iraq, is on display.
The title Ark of the Liberties is taken from a passage in Herman Melville's White-Jacket that also refers to Americans as "chosen people" and holds that "God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race." Linking Melville's phrase with Noah's ark, the ark of the covenant and the first ship to arrive in Maryland, the Ark and Dove, Widmer suggests that the conceptual terrain "has always been interpreted by Americans as a voyage on behalf of all humanity," that in essence "it is a voyage in search of freedom . . . so that we can make its coordinates known to the rest of mankind."
In this historical endeavor, Widmer finds "a glorious arc" (he was a foreign-policy speechwriter for the Clinton White House; whether homonyms were encouraged is unknown) reaching from the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address to Wilson's Fourteen Points (which included a suggestion to adjust colonial claims in the Versailles negotiations, giving equal weight in sovereignty questions to the populace affected) to President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's 1941 Atlantic Charter (among its calls: economic cooperation, curtailment of force and the right of people to choose their form of government) to the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
These broad strokes are raised in Widmer's preface, in which he also addresses the manifold definitions of "liberty," a word ubiquitous enough "as to be nearly without meaning, ranging freely across the spectrum of political expression" left to right -- not to mention that during the Civil War Northerners construed it as freedom from restraint (pertaining to slaves) while Southerners interpreted it as freedom from interference (in their way of life). He also states up front his intent to avoid the "twin pitfalls of extreme defensiveness and extreme criticism." In other words, this will be a centrist account, eschewing positions held by "superpatriots" and "America-haters" (although both seem to be straw men).
Among the book's idiosyncrasies is that it seems to have been written by two Ted Widmers. The first wrote a 300-plus-page account that softly burnishes a lapel flag pin as it develops its narrative of Americans as good neighbors in the world -- pointing out, for instance, that in the 50 years after our Declaration of Independence some 20 others were modeled on it. And there is indeed much good to report. Widmer also raises significant moral questions about the country's conduct, but those tend to be safely remote in history, and only through readerly inference do they bear any relation to contemporary events. Some seem to contradict his book's broad historical argument, such as instances of the CIA toppling governments, including Guatemala's and Iran's. Perhaps the best example here is Widmer's avowal of the bald territorial impulses behind the Mexican War under President Polk, which started on a pretext and nearly doubled U.S. territory -- a war Ulysses S. Grant called "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation" and part of "a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed."
In this case, Widmer points out that "for the first time in its history, the United States was conducting a large-scale invasion of a sovereign nation. It claimed to be fighting a defensive war when it was clearly the aggressor. . . . It claimed all this as destiny when it was clearly a war of choice. It is dangerous to cite Providence under such circumstances." He reports an ex-post-facto conviction among Americans "that something harmful had occurred in the rush to battle orchestrated by a president working behind the scenes with no congressional oversight. . . . Polk had expertly sidestepped all the restraints built into the system. . . . A Tennessee congressman -- one of Polk's neighbors -- called his war message 'an artful perversion of the truth -- a disingenuous statement of facts.' " Hmmm.
A second, angrier Ted Widmer apparently penned the epilogue, decrying "the particular combination of evangelicals and neoconservatives" who brought with them "a religious commitment to overthrowing regimes" and torture on demand. Here, a perceptible tonal shift leaves the impression of pent-up feelings that needed venting. This Widmer writes, "No amount of patriotic drapery (and no administration has cited liberty quite as frantically as the one that launched this preemptive war) can conceal the now-apparent fact that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a profound miscalculation [in] violation of the UN Charter and much of our history." Declaring that "one could compile a long list of international agreements we have refused to honor," he calls the "cynics" assembled in the Bush administration "wolves in Wilsonian clothing."
Widmer starts with the premise that "[r]eligion has never been as far removed from our secular government as we claim" and terms the historical wall of separation between church and state "more of a picket fence," although the evidence is thin. He is more interesting in harking back to the Puritans and John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who invoked "a city upon a hill" but was largely concerned with anticipating the Antichrist and the apocalypse. Widmer suggests that their millenarian thought foreshadowed our current struggles in the Middle East and with Islam.
When it comes to the missionary aspect of the American project or experiment, Widmer liberally quotes political figures from Jefferson onward who envisioned a continuous, outreaching revolution and focuses on Roosevelt's intensification of Wilsonian ideals in fusing domestic and foreign policy. He mentions cultural diplomacy but refrains from any extensive examination of it. Moreover, some contemporary questions from a global perspective -- such as Fareed Zakaria's concerns, expressed in The Future of Freedom, that while "democracy is flourishing, liberty is not" and that what can be called constitutional liberalism does not always result from democratic elections -- lie outside the purview of Ark of the Liberties. Widmer's book is both a primer and a call to faith of sorts -- a historically cast reminder. He's at his best when he raises issues of importance to American heritage. "How to wield nearly limitless power when the United States had always opposed the idea of power without check?" is one of them.
Art Winslow is a former literary and executive editor of the Nation.