World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Manela, Erez, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

     In his well written account of the international and transnational arena immediately following World War One, Erez Manela focuses on the 1919 Paris Peace Conference not from the perspective of the core, but instead from the periphery. Forsaking the usual concentration on the post war peace process as it both affected and was affected by the major European powers, Manela centers instead on the impact of the peace process on the periphery of empire, namely, the colonial states, using the specific examples of China, Egypt, India, and Korea. Crucial to his thesis is the Wilsonian message of national self-determination and equality among states. The impact and corresponding ripple effect of Wilson's rhetoric from 1918 through the end of the Paris peace conference is what Manela defines as the "Wilsonian Moment."

     As Manela explains, Wilson constructed his idealistic message calling for the self-determination of peoples and the establishment of an impartial adjustment to colonial claims from a distinctly Eurocentric mindset. Though Europe was his primary intended audience, news wire services, all based in the newly victorious states such as the British Reuters and George Creel's Committee on Public Information broadcast Wilson's ideas across the globe, where they resonated deeply with leaders of the emerging non-western nationalistic movements in various colonial states. Manela brings to the fore the specific responses to Wilson's ideas in China, Egypt, India, and Korea. There, nationalist leaders such as Mao Zedong, Sa'd Zaghlul, Jawharlal Nehru, and Syngman Rhee appropriated Wilson's rhetoric to further their goals of independence from the major European powers that dominated the Paris Peace Conference. Anti-colonial nationalism thus gained international expression during the Conference along two intersecting points. The first of these was along the Wilsonian principle of self-determination which colonial nationalists appropriated as a moral challenge to the idea of imperialism. This provided an internationally recognized ethical argument for the colonial nationalists. The next point builds on this as colonial nationalists attempted to leverage Wilson's ideas and his perceived rising international stature in order to push their desires for self-determination onto the international stage.

     Wilson's rhetoric, then, intended for a European audience, gave nationalists seeking independence from European powers hope that they might be included in the idealized "family of nations" in the world as equals with their European counterparts (p. 216). For Chinese nationalists such as Sun Yat-sen, the Wilsonian moment gave hope that a new era of self-determination and equality in international relations was dawning. Though their faith in Wilson evaporated as he failed to apply his ideas to China, they did not renounce his concepts. While China failed to gain equality at the Paris Conference, that failure was temporary, and by 1928 a newly reunited China, under Chiang Kai-shek, was able to renegotiate its treaties with European powers to both achieve tariff autonomy and abrogate legal extraterritoriality. While Chinese intellectuals, though disillusioned with the person of Wilson, continued to adhere to his ideology, in India disenchantment with Wilson ironically led nationalists such as Nehru to a move away from the west and develop a closer relationship with Marxist ideals, as China would also do.

     Ironically, Wilson's rhetoric of self-determination was an attempt by him to out flank, or marginalize the new ideological threats rising in the Soviet Union. However, whereas Lenin's discourse on self-determination included the idea of ethnically defined nations, Wilson's principles did not (p. 62). For Wilson, the central thrust of his message lay with Europe. He did not intend for the fate of colonial nationalistic dreams to take the stage during the Paris peace conference. In his mind, the newly proposed League of Nations would arbitrate whatever rights of self-determination were for the colonies after the central issues of European peace and territory were handled.

     Manela argues that it was not just that colonial nationalists had attributed broader meaning to Wilson's rhetoric than he had intended, but also that the brightness of Wilson's star was waning. Wilson failed to include any high-ranking Republicans in his peace delegation. As a new Republican- controlled congress convened the opportunity for the peace treaty to be ratified by the senate died, as Wilson's nemesis, Henry Cabot Lodge, became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and de-railed the deliberations on ratification. Too, during Wilson's absence from the Paris peace table, negotiations had moved from the abstract ideals of the League of Nations to the cold facts of territorial changes, reparations, and limitations on German rearmament (p. 138). Crisis in Europe moved the negotiations to the concrete, away from the abstract, and by the time the Big Three presented the peace treaty to the German representatives, it bore little resemblance to the Wilsonian ideals they expected. Though they objected strenuously, with their country near collapse, they had little choice but to accept its terms.

     In the spring of 1919, the colonial world was also in crisis. Koreans took to the streets hoping that a show of popular support would influence those at the peace conference to grant them independence. Britain, too, flexed her muscles to suppress claims for Egyptian and Indian independence. (Egypt's struggle for Independence would continue until 1956, and while they continued to embrace the idea of self-determination, they had, by then, ceased imagining the United States as a benevolent force in international relations.) Even if Wilson had intended his progressive rhetoric to benefit colonial nationalists, politically he was now marginalized. Hopes for liberal anti-colonialism died with Wilson's dying political strength.

     Manela contends that for the colonial nationalists, Wilson's brave rhetoric ended up being only empty words. Disillusionment with Wilson brought disillusionment with the west, and many of the subaltern nationalists turned their gaze from Wilsonian liberalism to Soviet- style Marxism. However, the brief Wilsonian moment had enabled colonial nationalists to formulate arguments for self-governance in a language that found an audience within the international arena as it encouraged them to formulate their arguments for self-governance in terms that resonated across the international discourse of legitimacy (p. 217). Nationalistic momentum grew in India and Egypt, and China sought to exercise her right to abrogate unfair treaties. Colonial nationalism proved to be not only international, but also transnational, as Wilson's rhetoric gave those hoping for independence a unified language in which to express not only their desires, but the moral justifications for them. Disillusionment with the man did not lead to disillusionment with the ideal of self-determination.

     The Wilsonian Moment is a well-written treatise that fits easily within several teaching venues at the university level. It is a necessary read for mid- to upper-level undergraduate and graduate students of 20th century diplomatic history. As well, students of modern Asian and/or American history would benefit greatly from its focus on the transcendent nature of political ideas. It stands out most significantly, however, in a world history venue, as it demonstrates how new media transmitted ideas from the intended audience across a rapidly shrinking globe with unintended consequences, shedding new light on the interactions between the metropole core and the peripheral colonial nationalist. Manela does a masterful job of demonstrating the power of words, and how rapidly growing disillusionment with Wilson, as he failed to act to apply his idealistic rhetoric to the periphery, drove many colonial nationalists away from the United States and towards Marxist and Leninist ideologies.


Ted Rogers
University of Colorado


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2009 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use