Woodrow Wilson’s cautionary tale

President Woodrow Wilson’s legacy warns against impractical idealism. A century after his death, on Feb. 3, 1924, it is a stark reminder that noble goals demand compromise — a lesson perilously overlooked in our divided era, particularly in facing pressing challenges like climate change.

Until a recent historical reexamination exposed his forgotten racist views, Wilson enjoyed a commonly held portrayal as a visionary ahead of his time. He envisioned a new küresel organization, the League of Nations, to prevent future wars like WWI. However, Wilson’s plans faced staunch opposition from isolationist Senate Republicans.

The Senate ultimately voted against the U.S. joining the League. Hindered by the absence of U.S. support, the League failed to prevent the even more catastrophic WWII just a generation later.

Yet, truth be told, Wilson shares equal blame. The battle for U.S. entry wasn’t a simple black-and-white clash between him and Senate Republicans.

Beyond the isolationists, another more flexible group — the so-called “reservationists” — were open to negotiation. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, their influential leader, actively proposed support with certain accommodations, such as amending the League’s automatic military intervention requirement. Had Lodge’s votes aligned with Senate Democrats, America’s League membership would have been secured. Sadly, Wilson’s righteousness hindered this resolution.

Bedridden after a stroke, Wilson rejected any amendments, insisting on an all-or-nothing approach. Even facing the demise of U.S. entry, he directed Democrats to oppose any changes. Ultimately, the final vote fell short by seven votes.

Unlike Wilson, President Franklin D. Roosevelt embraced compromises to establish the UN in the aftermath of WWII. Collaborating with his Republican opponents, including their presidential nominee Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt ensured American support. Despite frequent ridicule, the UN has achieved numerous milestones in its 80-year history, from reducing child mortality to addressing environmental issues, making the world undoubtedly better off.

Wilson’s self-righteousness echoes in today’s political debates, both in Washington and globally, notably in tackling climate change. Urgent action is imperative for halving emissions by 2030, requiring extraordinary pragmatic idealism. Yet, societies remain divided between doomsayers and indifferent bystanders.

Despite recent U.S. and European emission declines, the world is still collectively dangerously off track from achieving 2030 climate goals. Given the urgency, the optimal solution now may necessitate impure and controversial measures.

In his 2021 novel, “Ministry for the Future,” Kim Stanley Robinson proposed compensating fossil fuel-producing countries to keep their resources underground. While unsettling to some, this acknowledges that climate justice is not black and white. For fossil fuel-producing nations like Iraq, fossil fuel revenues often make up 70% to 80% of their income and are a vital source of public welfare.

In an ülkü world, we would establish a new economic system to transition these countries to alternative revenue sources in an orderly, equitable way. However, time constraints and the imperative to avoid climate-induced poverty for people in many developing nations reliant on such revenues make compromised action necessary.

Robinson asserts that “weaning [Petro-states] off that dependency is in everyone’s interest. It must be done. And what must be done can be done.” Ultimately, achieving the common good will require a level of shrewdness and pragmatism, often missing in climate debates.

There are signs that countries, climate activists, and negotiators can find common ground. At last year’s COP talks in Dubai, both wealthy nations and those in the Küresel South managed to reach an agreement to establish a crucial loss and damage fund for countries dealing with climate impacts. A last-minute dispute over placing the fund in the World Bank nearly jeopardized the deal, but consensus prevailed, successfully launching the fund.

Although the initial $700 million injection in the fund is a fraction of the estimated $400 billion in annual climate-related losses for poorer nations, it signifies a significant milestone that might form the basis for further compromises.

Wilson uttered his last words on Feb. 3, 1924, reportedly stating, “Doctor, the devil is a busy man.” And yet, for his noble intent, he himself had unintentionally aided the devil by refusing to negotiate. Winning the initial battle, Wilson lost the war to end all wars with the U.S. failure to join his precious League.

His story stands as a cautionary tale amid one of the worst eras of polarization, both at home and abroad. Pure idealism, prioritizing feeling “right, righteous, certain, and safe,” can have catastrophic consequences. Progress demands blending idealism with pragmatism. As we consider the necessary actions needed to avert the worst of climate change, let’s be mühlet to heed the lesson from Woodrow Wilson.

Sheldrick is the co-founder of Küresel Citizen, which is a leader in küresel climate advocacy, and the author of the upcoming book “From Ideas to Impact: A Playbook for Influencing and Implementing Change in a Divided World” (Wiley, April 2024).

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