The Wilsonian Conception of Democracy and Human Rights: A Retrospective and Prospective

by Korwa G. Adar


The principles of democracy and human rights have been persistent, if at times secondary, themes within the rhetoric of American foreign policy toward Africa since the end of World War II. The linking of such Wilsonian precepts with foreign policy practice, however, has been an altogether different story. US policy makers consistently followed the dictates of realpolitik in the era of the Cold War, leaving concerns for democracy and human rights aside. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, conditions are now in place for the tangible and coherent pursuit of an American foreign policy based on democracy and human rights. In the current era, the question emerges as to the resonance of such Wilsonian principles in US foreign policy towards Africa. This essay examines the salience of Wilsonian precepts in United States foreign policy towards Africa in the past and in the current era of Clinton’s visit to Africa.

In his foreign policy pronouncements vis-a-vis the European colonial powers President Woodrow Wilson advocated for the pursuit of democracy and human rights conceptualized within the context of self-determination for the colonized peoples. The idea of universal morality was central for Wilson. In his view, the realization of individual freedom, limited government, and legitimacy of power held the key to both international peace and the emancipation of humanity from injustice(1). It was within this philosophical context that he advocated for the need to make the world safe for democracy. This, he argued, would promote America’s long term interests (2).

Wilsonianism emerged as a distinct policy philosophy at the end of the First World War. One of the central concerns at the time was how to avoid war and conflict in general. For Wilson, the crucial priority was the need to establish people-oriented internal and international democratic institutions that would act as the custodians of democracy and human rights as conceptualised within the general rubric of self-determination (3). This idealism culminated in the formation of the League of Nations in 1919. Thus, Wilsonianism was not only internationalised but also institutionalised. Although the United States did not become a contracting party to the League, Wilsonianism had a global impact.

Such thinking would go on to inform the founding fathers of the United Nations. The UN system tangibly paved the way for the process of decolonization in Africa through the UN General Assembly resolutions, with African countries which were independent at the time as well as India and the socialist countries taking the lead (4). In this respect, Wilsonianism not only challenged dictatorial and authoritarian systems worldwide but it also helped oppressed people become aware of their rights. For the colonized peoples of Africa, democracy and human rights (or self-determination in general) was equated with the absence of colonialism (5). Moreover, the momentum on the issues of democracy and human rights was evidenced with the appointment of Eleanor Roosevelt to Chair a Commission on Human Rights. The results of Roosevelt’s Commission were the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its corollaries the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

President Wilson’s global campaign as the champion for the silent majority also set the stage for a United States democracy and human rights foreign policy in the twentieth century (6). Wilsonian precepts resonated clearly in the messsage of the Atlantic Charter which, although promulgated by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wilson’s intellectual heir, manifestly indicated US dissatisfaction with the lack of sovereignty for colonised peoples.

The concern for the promulgation of democracy and human rights is thus part of the legacy of United States foreign policy towards Africa. The salience of these moral principles in foregn policy practice, however, has always stood in the face of a more realist agenda guiding US policy. This was particularly evident during the Cold War. The status of such ideas in the post-Cold War foreign policy of the United States remains an open question.

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Korwa G. AdarĀ teaches International Relations at the International Studies Unit, Political Studies Department, Rhodes University, South Africa. His articles have appeared in many internationally refereed journals. His recent books include, Kenyan Foreign Policy Behaviour Towards Somalia, 1963-1983 (Lanham: University Press of America, 1994) and a co-edited volume, The United States and Africa: From Independence to the End of the Cold War (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1995) with J.D. Olewe-Nyunya and M. Munene. Further research on this subject could not have been possible without the financial support of Rhodes University Council Research Grant. I am indebted to Julie Wells, Rhodes University, for her comments on the earlier drafts of this article. I however remain solely responsible for its shortcomings.