Book Review ~ Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century

PublicAffairs o 2001 o 240 pages o $24.00

Reviewed by Doug Bandow

Despite the end of the Cold War, the world remains a dangerous place, as vividly demonstrated on September 11. The twentieth century was the bloodiest, most murderous 100 years of human history. Writing before the terrorist attacks of last fall, former Secretary of Defense and World Bank President Robert McNamara and Brown University Professor James Blight present their agenda for making this new century less bloody.

Wilson’s Ghost correctly identifies several major challenges, but its solutions fall short. In the authors’ view, "we are being pursued by [President Woodrow] Wilson’s ghost: by Wilson’s failure to convince the European allies to base their foreign policy upon the moral imperative of preventing carnage; and by his failure to convince the U.S Senate to ratify" the Versailles Treaty. But Wilson’s most important mistake was taking the United States into World War I, a conflict between two morally tainted militaristic blocs, in which American security was not at stake. That intervention had disastrous consequences, but McNamara and Blight fail to draw the right conclusions and advocate policies that would keep America dangerously entangled in foreign military escapades.

McNamara and Blight observe that "throughout the post-Cold War period, brutal war and communal killing on an alarming scale have increased, and the danger of nuclear catastrophe remains ever present." To that list now can be added the threat of terrorism, with potentially horrific consequences should terrorists gain access to weapons of mass destruction. The authors rightly worry that "Wilson’s ghost has already appeared in the 21st century, as Russia and China have become increasingly suspicious of the United States and the West for betraying them, reneging (as the Russians believe) on commitments not to expand the NATO alliance on Russia’s western border; and (as the Chinese believe) on commitments to avoid supporting independence for Taiwan." War with either of those states would be disastrous.

The authors call for "realistic empathy," that is, understanding the other side’s perspectives, to help guide U.S. policy. But they miss the logical result of such empathy: adopt a less interventionist and thus less provocative policy. Leave Europe’s defense to the Europeans; leave Taiwan’s defense to Taiwan.

McNamara and Blight also address the hideous calamity of inter-communal killing. In contrast to some activists who would have America police the globe, they acknowledge the almost endless complications that bedevil the initiation of war for allegedly humanitarian purposes.

Their unsatisfying response, however, is to have the United States act only in a multilateral context under a reformed United Nations. They fail to develop any sort of criteria that would make humanitarian intervention appear to be anything other than arbitrary and self-serving. Today the United States sometimes intervenes when white Europeans are dying, their plight ends up on television, and the killers are from an unimportant, unpopular country. How would McNamara and Blight choose differently from among the scores of killing grounds around the globe?

Furthermore, the authors fail to explain why Washington politicians are authorized to risk the lives of young Americans in purposes unconnected to the vital interests of their own national community. However tempting it may be to turn 18-year-olds into guardians of a new global empire in an attempt to impose Pax Americana, it is not an appropriate role for a government that claims to be republican.

Perhaps most frustrating is McNamara’s and Blight’s chapter on nuclear weapons. They advocate a "nuclear-weapons-free world," a worthy goal. But their action program, for nations to bargain their way down to zero, seems wildly unrealistic. The technology is loose; the number of countries with "turnkey" capabilities will increase; there will always be nations hoping to gain an advantage over historic enemies or new rivals. Better would be to promote the spread of defenses against missiles, dismissed by the authors, negotiate restrictions on the size of arsenals, and make nuclear weapons "safer" through better command-and-control technologies, hotlines among antagonistic states, and so on. Most important would be to avoid unnecessary confrontations among nuclear-armed states, another reason for the United States to leave populous and prosperous allies to defend themselves.

This is also the best prescription to address terrorism. America is hated for many reasons, but few people are willing to sacrifice their lives out of abstract hatred of, say, McDonald’s or MTV. When they believe that intervention has placed the United States at war with them, however, they are willing to kill in return.

"Listen carefully, and with an open mind, to Wilson’s ghost," enjoin McNamara and Blight. As well we should. But Wilson’s ghost is not saying intervene more carefully. It is saying stay out when you can.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

Related Articles


{{}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}} {{}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}}
{{article.Topic.Topic}} {{article.Topic.Topic}}