Book Review: The Wilsonian Moment

I read Erez Manela's The Wilsonian Moment: Self-determination and the Intellectual Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism over the weekend. 

As far as Intellectual Histories go, this is quite a gripping read. Focused on a short span of time, primarily between January 1918 when Wilson laid out his fourteen points and June 1919 when the treaty of Versailles was signed, the narrative brings together an extraordinary cast of characters, pettiness and foresight, idealism and intrigue, optimism and disappointment in good measure. Interspersing the biographical narratives of many leading figures of anticolonial nationalism, Saad Zaghloul, Syngman Rhee, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Wellington Koo among them, this is an attempt to present the radicalisation of anticolonial nationalism in four nations - Egypt, India, China and Korea - around the 'Wilsonian Moment', the hopes generated by Wilson's proclamation of Fourteen points and particularly the promise of 'self-determination'. 

Indeed, one may as well tell the story of the 'Wilsonian Moment' as one that has never really been. Wilson never made the world people expected him to, and by his own admission, quoted in the book, he never meant to extend his promise beyond the narrow geopolitical considerations of the multi-ethnic Central European and Ottoman empires. The American war propaganda made him the giant he became - someone to be compared with Budhdha and Christ by commentators given to bombast, or the liberator of the world for those who were desperate for his goodwill for their national causes - but he was, as Mr Manela pointed out, very much a politician of his time, committed to the imperial mission of United States in Philippines, a believer of racial segregation, a Gladstone-admiring Liberal from another day and age. That Wilson eventually disappointed is no surprise at all, but Mr Manela argues that his rhetoric had a transformational impact on nationalist discourse in the four countries studied here.

The book shows both the promises and problems of doing 'global history'. The approach of focusing on Wilsonian impact opens up new discussions, outside the usual closed-world explanations of nationalist upheavals to be found within the confines of respective histories of nations. These new perspectives are immensely valuable, not only because Empire was a global business by definition, but also because the telling of national histories inevitably leave out the connections and contributions from the outside. Not just Wilson, but Lala Lajpat Rai and his American exile become a marginal story in the Indian Nationalist discourse, which needed correction. 

At the same time, however, it is difficult to escape the temptation of overstating the case. To make the case that there was a 'Wilsonian Moment', one may be tempted to present this as the only, rather than one of the many, possible narratives. This means selective scoping of the narrative: Mao and Gandhi, who never had much time for the rhetoric of the American President, take a somewhat background role (admittedly, they were just getting started in 1919), ceding the space to others who anchored their hopes on Wilsonian vision, at least for that fleeting moment. Such an argument also reorders the narrative somewhat: The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 1919 becomes an incident - a significant one - in the narrative of Wilsonian radicalisation of Indian nationalism, rather than a turning point, as one would usually view it to be. Even more contentiously, the March 1st movement become the real turning point for the Korean nation, and not the other, more indigenous, movements, which North Koreans today would anchor their stories to.

These are indeed matters of perspective, and one could argue that a Historian always have to be selective to some degree. However, I shall argue that this particular piece of global history has another challenge to overcome. The narrative of Wilsonian Moment is, by definition, Eurocentric: It is perhaps indisputable that the Paris Peace Conference did indeed elicit great hopes among various subject nations. The question, however, is whether this is the real beginnings of internationalisation of anti-colonial nationalism, and therefore, the start of later attempts of non-aligned movement and third world solidarity. Mr Manela's case rests on exactly that: While Wilson's promises came to nothing, its significance remained in the later international efforts of creating anticolonial platforms. However, this line of argument ignores the earlier strands of thought - Pan-Islamic or Pan-Asian ideologies, for example - and other events of competing significance, such as Mutafa Kemal and Turkish War, that shaped the global imagination of Anti-colonial nationalism. In a way, the narrative here is very much of Centre and Periphery, whereas the emergence of nationalist solidarity (which is a better term than nationalist internationalism) may be better understood as a network of ideas, connections and thinkers. The Wilsonian Narrative, though important, privileges one single strand among the various connections and conversations that brought it about.

The other implicit argument of the book is that the failure of the Wilsonian moment indicates a failure of Liberal Internationalism, a space that would be later filled by Bolshevik influence. Indeed, many nationalists in Egypt, India, China and Korea would look at Russia, and indeed, that is true for Ho Chi Minh, then a Pastry Chef under Escoffier, who would pin his hopes on Wilson, before finding his ideological mentor in Lenin. However, Russian influence somewhat came with Russia's economic success, and that narrative was as much about economic modernisation (costs of which were not visible to the nationalists at the time) as the ideology.

In the end, Wilson was a bitter failure. He could never get United States join the League of Nations, and the world order the peacemakers in Paris created collapsed spectacularly only in a few years time. With hindsight, their extraordinary naivety was rather apparent. The real significance of Wilsonian Moment is in its non-being, that it really never came about. And, in that, there is a powerful lesson. 




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