Wilson’s Fourteen Points More Than a Century On: where do they stand now?

Last Friday marked the anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’ speech to Congress, in which he outlined his statement of principles for attaining lasting world peace. As conflict rages across the globe today it is worth revisiting Wilson’s admirable which, despite its admirable idealism, has proven ineffective as a long-term solution for world peace.

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I. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.

This first point was, naturally, always going to prove particularly challenging to enforce. However much states may preach the value of openness in bilateral relations, diplomacy would not be diplomacy without closed-door meetings, covert agreements and duplicitous alliances.

It could even be argued that the Allies during WWII violated this principle with their dealings at Yalta and Potsdam, for instance. (Failure).

II. Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants.

This principle has generally been upheld during peacetime in the past century, with the rapid advance of globalisation making such a reality beneficial to nearly every state. Of course, arguments remain over navigation in disputed territorial waters but outside these zones the only common threat posed to navigation is by non-state actors such as pirates (Success).

III. The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.

For those who want it, trade equality is a possibility, as enshrined in the covenant of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Artificially imposed economic barriers tend to be the result of individual states rather than any act of the international community (Success).

IV. Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.

An unmitigated failure. Arms control has proven impossible to enforce, with the political influence of the defence industry, the continuing existential threats to state security and the desire for power-projection capabilities ensuring that national armaments will never be reduced to a point consistent with domestic safety (Failure).

V. A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable government whose title is to be determined.

Wilson did not like European imperialism and the European powers took umbrage at this proposal. The process of colonisation was inherently unfair and impartial, with de-colonisation not completed for several decades. Simultaneously, those colonies removed from Germany after WWI were passed as mandates to other European nations, not exactly a process that took into account the sovereignty of the populations concerned (Failure).

VI. The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest cooperation of the other nations of the world in obtaining for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development and national policy and assure her of a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her own choosing; and, more than a welcome, assistance also of every kind that she may need and may herself desire. The treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations in the months to come will be the acid test of their good will, of their comprehension of her needs as distinguished from their own interests, and of their intelligent and unselfish sympathy.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk – signed two months after Wilson’s speech in March 1918 – saw Russian territory annexed by Germany. Whilst the German surrender in November would see these territorial changes reversed, Wilson’s long-term of ideal of allowing Russia ‘independent determination of her own political development’ backfired. The new Bolshevik government would become the forerunner of the greatest enemy in the history of the United States, even if the Soviet Union served as a crucial ally during WWII (Partial Success).

Signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty
Signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty

VII. Belgium, the whole world will agree, must be evacuated and restored, without any attempt to limit the sovereignty which she enjoys in common with all other free nations.

Belgium was restored on the German surrender, only to be invaded again during WWII, forcing another bloody and costly campaign to liberate the inconveniently situated state. Now, of course, Belgian sovereignty is under no immediate threat bar the potential for regional separatism (Failure).

VIII. All French territory should be freed and the invaded portions restored, and the wrong done to France by Prussia in 1871 in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine, which has unsettled the peace of the world for nearly fifty years, should be righted, in order that peace may once more be made secure in the interest of all.

Ditto the above. French territory was restored only for it to be consumed again by the Germans during WWII, during which a collaborationist regime was established in the south of the country. The failure of France and its allies to secure Western Europe’s largest nation in light of clear Nazi threats was a disaster and led to the capitulation of the French army in a matter of weeks. Now the French and Germans are on good terms and dominate the EU but that was only after another catastrophic war (Failure).

IX. A re-adjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.

Italy’s borders were formalised and preserved and it was only Mussolini’s fascists that would jeopardise this status during WWII, with the Italians having felt snubbed on the colonial mandates agreed at Versailles in 1919 (Success).

X. The people of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development.

Autonomous development was granted after the surrender, although Austria-Hungary was divided into two separate states. These would be subsumed by the Nazi propaganda/war machine in WWII (Partial Success).

XI. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be evacuated; occupied territories restored; Serbia accorded free and secure access to the sea; and the relations of the several Balkan states to one another determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality; and international guarantees of the political and economic independence and territorial integrity of the several Balkan states should be entered into.

Wilson’s idealism – and perhaps his lack of knowledge of European history – are quite evident here. To think that the Balkan states’ relations could be dictated by ‘friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality’ is as laughable now as it must have been then. From immediately after WWI there was upheaval in the Balkan region, with short-lived states, internal conflict and ethnic antagonism proliferating before coming to head during WWII and the succeeding years (Failure). 

One of the League of Nations first challenges was to try and resolve the myriad Balkans disputes
One of the League of Nations first challenges was to try and resolve the myriad Balkans disputes

XII. The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.

Turkey struggled to stay together after WWI but has ultimately been the enduring link to the Ottoman Empire, which had died a long overdue death by the time of Wilson’s speech. As for much of the former Ottoman territory, it comprises those Middle Eastern states that seem to suffer perpetual conflict and have never quite been free from foreign intervention (Partial Success).

XIII. An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.

An initial success but the spineless European powers ultimately left Poland in the slaughterhouse by 1939, resulting in a horrific Nazi occupation and the extermination of its Jewish population. It would take another set of international agreements and Yalta and Potsdam for the Poles to be compensated – some might argue unfairly, with the annexation of a large chunk of East Prussia (Failure).

XIV. A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.

A revolutionary principle. Whilst the League of Nations proved ineffective in establishing and maintaining world peace, it set the precedent for the United Nations (UN) which, despite some limitations dictated largely by the actions of rogue states, remains a crucial international governing body that the world cannot do without (Success).

League of Nations Assembly, 1932. A revolutionary concept, the League was unable to preserve global peace, largely because of its absent military mandate
League of Nations Assembly, 1932. A revolutionary concept, the League was unable to preserve global peace, largely because of its absent military mandate

Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’ were made whilst WWI was still raging and therefore it is difficult to judge them in hindsight. The President’s two major goals were separate if interlinked; 1) Restore the immediate peace after more than three years of war and 2) put in place provisions for perpetual world peace.

Even at the time some of Wilson’s principles were fantastical and unlikely to succeed and, to extent, display an ignorance of European history and politics that perhaps stemmed from America’s isolationism at the beginning of the 20th century. The European parties at Versailles certainly considered Wilson a hopeless idealist yet they still took his principles on board for the sake of peace in the short-term. As a long-term solution, the ‘Fourteen Points’ were largely ineffective.

Wilson's Fourteen Points were the only comprehensive plan for peace at the end of WWI - in this respect they served an important short-term purpose
Wilson’s Fourteen Points were the only comprehensive plan for peace at the end of WWI – in this respect they served an important short-term purpose

The idea of the League of Nations – as a forerunner to the UN – is undoubtedly Wilson’s biggest historical contribution to global peace in the long-term, even if such lofty institutions cannot always mediate between states unwilling to become true stakeholders in the international system.

Were we to draw up our ‘Fourteen Points’ today, what would they be? I think perhaps that is best left for a separate post…

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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