This is a strange centenary. A century ago, on Dec. 4, President Woodrow Wilson boarded the USS George Washington, a U.S. Navy transatlantic ship that had served during the European war as a troop carrier, in New York. It was the first presidential trip to Europe and his longest stay there – six months – during which time he became the most popular politician in the world.
The current president, Donald Trump, on board Air Force One for only a few hours this weekend, will attend events* commemorating the centenary of the end of a conflict that led to the horrors of the 20th century and laid the foundations of a future trans-Atlantic relationship, the elegant euphemism that denotes the intervention and hegemony of the United States in the western part of the European continent.
One could argue that these two men are poles apart. The first went to college and was a lawyer. The second is an uneducated real estate speculator. One is a symbol of idealism; the other is a symbol of the crude power brought about by money. And if one of these men was ready to be open to the world and to lead it, the other prefers to isolate himself, seeking to recover the greatness he thinks his country has lost. The former imagined a world government; the latter is similar to the isolationists who closed the way to the Wilsonian dream.
Looking at these two characters under a lens, some observers have pointed out that there are similarities. The historian Margaret MacMillan refers to “Wilson’s propensity, perhaps unconscious, to ignore the truth.” While Trump displays bad manners to reporters, Wilson “frequently lost his temper.” His press officer noted that he was “a good hater.” Another historian, Evan Thomas, points out the “uncompromising style” which they both share.
Wilson devoted much of his energy to Europe, but he failed. The peace that emerged from the Treaty of Versailles did not last. The imbalance of the new world order resulted in a new and even more terrible war. The American president came to seek consensus, but sowed dissent. His principle of self-determination led to an uneven balance, and even now, a bitter century on, the nationalists are once again shattering the European order. Trump does not care. He will not even participate in the Paris Peace Forum organized by Emmanuel Macron as the culmination of the centenary of the Great War. Instead of celebrating the centenary of the first military intervention in Europe, and the beginnings of a close geopolitical friendship, he will likely choose to stay at home. And so, with a loud bang, his presidency slams the door on the last hundred years.
*Editor’s note: These events occurred on Nov. 11, 2018, but the editor feels that the opinions expressed in this article are still relevant.