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Power without Victory

Woodrow Wilson and the American Internationalist Experiment

For decades, Woodrow Wilson has been remembered as either a paternalistic liberal or reactionary conservative at home and as a naïve idealist or cynical imperialist abroad. Historians’ harsh judgments of Wilson are understandable. He won two elections by promising a deliberative democratic process that would ensure justice and political empowerment for all. Yet under Wilson, Jim Crow persisted, interventions in Latin America increased, and a humiliating peace settlement was forced upon Germany. A generation after Wilson, stark inequalities and injustices still plagued the nation, myopic nationalism hindered its responsible engagement in world affairs, and a second vastly destructive global conflict threatened the survival of democracy worldwide—leaving some Americans today to wonder what, exactly, the buildings and programs bearing his name are commemorating.

In Power without Victory, Trygve Throntveit argues that there is more to the story of Wilson than these sad truths. Throntveit makes the case that Wilson was not a “Wilsonian,” as that term has come to be understood, but a principled pragmatist in the tradition of William James. He did not seek to stamp American-style democracy on other peoples, but to enable the gradual development of a genuinely global system of governance that would maintain justice and facilitate peaceful change—a goal that, contrary to historical tradition, the American people embraced. In this brilliant intellectual, cultural, and political history, Throntveit gives us a new vision of Wilson, as well as a model of how to think about the complex relationship between the world of ideas and the worlds of policy and diplomacy.

416 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2017

History: American History, History of Ideas

Political Science: Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations


“As America once again takes an isolationist and nationalist turn, it is refreshing and instructive to turn back to Woodrow Wilson’s internationalist vision. Power without Victory delves beneath popular stereotypes of Wilson, both good and bad, to offer a sophisticated analysis of a pragmatic-progressive tradition in American politics that is badly needed today.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter | president and CEO of New America and coauthor of The Crisis of American Foreign Policy

“Required reading for all scholars working on Wilson’s development as a political thinker, or on the deeper roots of the ideas that would become known as Wilsonianism.”

American Historical Review

“Throntveit has taken on the ambitious task of redeeming the ideal of a global political order that Wilson represented. To a substantial degree, Throntveit also seeks to rescue Wilson himself as a political visionary. While not denying Wilson’s many flaws, Throntveit believes that they can be clearly distinguished from Wilson’s positive goals for both American and global politics. . . . He offers a convincing reconstruction of how Wilson and other American progressives thought about the ideals of political community and political deliberation, as well as the value of individual experimentation.”


“In this masterful work, Throntveit traces with compelling precision the sources and evolution of Woodrow Wilson’s international thought and policies. Uncovering their roots in pragmatist philosophy, particularly the ideas of William James, and in Progressive Era politics, he shows how Wilson’s approach was tested during his years in power, most significantly in the Great War and the peace conference that followed. This is the best account we have of the origins, development, and consequences of ‘Wilsonianism’ in Wilson’s own time, and as such it is essential reading for anyone interested in the history and practice of US foreign relations.”

Erez Manela | author of The Wilsonian Moment

“Wilsonianism has been studied intensively, but its philosophical underpinnings have rarely been examined with the care found in Power without Victory. Throntveit has written one of the most judicious, careful, and thoughtful accounts of Woodrow Wilson’s international thought.”

Andrew Preston | author of Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy

“In Power without Victory, Throntveit brilliantly illuminates the rich intellectual terrain upon which Woodrow Wilson cast his sweeping democratic vision of global order. Strikingly original, the book reframes our understanding of Wilson and his hopes for democratic renewal at home and peaceful change abroad. In this narrative, Wilson is a man of his time, embracing a pragmatic public philosophy and spirit of reform that ran through the American and European progressive intellectual and political world. Throntveit sees clearly Wilson’s moral flaws and blind spots, but he also finds in Wilson an earnest and grandly ambitious thinker who truly did offer a vision of a transformed world in which democracy and civil virtue would reign.”

G. John Ikenberry | author of Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American System

"In the context of international relations (IR) theory, Throntveit pushes against positivist-realist, neorealist, and neoliberal renditions of Wilson as a utopian oblivious to the anarchical nature of the international system dooming individual states to the security dilemma, limiting their cooperation, and dictating that they pursue national interests defined in terms of power...Wilson thus emerges as an early proponent of constructivism, whose contemporary representatives similarly view international structures as social phenomena—products of human choices and performances—capable of progressive change."

The Historian

Table of Contents

1. The Ethical Republic
2. Common Counsel
3. A Certain Blindness
4. Trials of Neutrality
5. Trojan Horsemanship
6. Provincials No Longer
7. The Will to Believe
8. The Fable of the Fourteen Points
9. A Living Thing Is Born
Conclusion: Power without Victory and the Right to Believe
Abbreviations of Names and Sources Used in the Notes

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