Woodrow Wilson's 14 Points 100 Years on: Rethinking the Liberal World Order

On January 8, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson appeared before Congress to present his now famous Fourteen Points — a draft peace plan that was supposed to put an end to the First World War and prevent future conflicts. The document set out the basic principles by which humankind has attempted to live ever since. Unfortunately, while most of these points were accepted and even put into practice, they did not keep the world from wars, conflicts, global inequality and uneven development.

Wilson’s points did not play out as planned for several reasons. The United States never became a member of the League of Nations due to internal political disagreements between the President and Congress (the executive and legislative powers in the United States continue to have fallings out to this day). Soviet Russia and Germany were not initially accepted into the League of Nations, which made this “world organization” insufficiently global in practice. Excluding these powerful players from the negotiations ultimately led to a new major conflict. This is a lesson for all humanity, one that is more relevant today than ever before.

The situation in early 2018 is in many respects similar to the history of 1918. Traditional players are becoming weaker, while some are disappearing into the past. Still others are now refusing to play by the old rules. The growing propensity toward conflict prevents cooperation in resolving common issues and achieving the goals of global development. Russia is seen as a constant threat, and attempts are being made to push the country out of the institutions of global governance. Geopolitical upheavals and threats make us search for new principles of the world order that will make global politics at least slightly more manageable. A century after the Fourteen Points, we are attempting to rethink these principles through the prism of the fundamental changes taking place in the world today.

Technological, political, economic and social change is pushing us to take a fresh look at the Fourteen Points. The obvious inconsistency between the principles of self-determination of nations and territorial integrity continues to cause conflicts, not to the least the current conflict between Russia and the West. The communication revolution was supposed to make diplomacy truly transparent and open, but the most important international decisions are still made behind closed doors. The United Nations (UN) has ceased to function in areas where there is a hint of conflicting interests among the major powers. Not only is the world far from free trade, the leaders of some countries are running and winning on protectionist platforms. Ongoing disputes concerning sovereignty over maritime domains threaten freedom of navigation. Regional arms races and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction among state and non-state actors make a mockery of Wilson’s call to reduce national armaments to the lowest possible level to ensure national security.

Almost every country in the world recognizes the importance of the principles set forth in the Fourteen Points. Some do not accept the “liberal” world order as a concept, seeing it as an extension of the United States’ aspirations for global dominance, although they do recognize the universal significance of the values that this concept embodies. Openness, rationality and normativity — these are the philosophical achievements of this (still intact) world order. These three foundations of the unofficial global treaty were intended to create a balance between the universality of human existence and the uniqueness of every person.

However, the new reality means that the treaty has to be rethought. Are the numerous non-state actors equal subjects of the world order as states? How will the fourth industrial revolution change approaches to free trade and economic integration? Can national security be extended to include cyberspace? In this report, we attempt to address these issues and the answers will allow us to move toward a vision of the world order in the 21st century that is capable of ensuring the harmonious development of the global system, taking regional specifics into account and preserving the common heritage of humankind.

In the main part of this paper, Andrey Kortunov discusses the principles presented by Wilson that have best stood the test of time and how they can be applied today. This is followed by individual essays on each of the Fourteen Points in which the authors rethink the significance of the foundations of the world order, from self-determination to cybersecurity and arms reduction in a new and rapidly changing world.