Since the end of the Cold War, America has been pulled two ways. To some Americans, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to present an opportunity to turn away from the world and focus nearly exclusively on domestic concerns. Others saw the triumph of 1991 as a validation of 50 years of active engagement in the world and pressed for renewed attention to international affairs.

Before long, the camp of internationalists fragmented, primarily over the issues of peacekeeping and “multilateralism.” Some who pressed for continued engagement in the world nevertheless opposed the deployment of American forces to Bosnia, Kosovo, and similar places on the grounds that these operations were a distraction from America’s “real” mission. Others argued that America should not act at all, except within the confines of international organizations like the United Nations. A hardy few sought continued involvement in which the U.S. took the lead, while trying to get others to follow. The fight among the “internationalists” became very bitter, and continues to this day. It is an enervating fight, however, and distracting energy and attention from the real issue: Should America remain actively engaged in the world or not?

This tension within American foreign policy is not new. It has appeared in one form or another after almost every significant conflict in American history. In many respects, though, the most interesting and useful comparison is to American foreign policy after World War I, when many of the same issues were on the table and a similar struggle within the internationalist community took place, to the detriment of America’s security. That is why John Milton Cooper’s recent work, Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations, is so timely. Cooper paints a vivid picture of Woodrow Wilson’s increasingly desperate efforts to ram the Versailles Treaty (including the Covenant of the League of Nations) down the throat of an increasingly unwilling Senate. Along the way it becomes clear that the real tragedy in 1920 was not the failure to ratify Versailles, as Cooper believes, but that the fratricidal battle within the internationalist community allowed true isolationism to triumph when it need not have.

Breaking the Heart of the World is a meticulously researched and well-written study of Wilson’s efforts. In 10 chapters, arranged chronologically, it describes this struggle, focusing on the fight over joining the League rather than the larger issue of the Versailles Treaty’s ratification, and concentrating on Wilson almost to the exclusion of the other principal actors. In particular, Cooper explores in detail how the physical and psychological consequences of the serious stroke Wilson suffered in October 1919 affected his conduct of the ratification negotiations with the Senate. He argues that Wilson’s inability physically to play an active role in those negotiations at the critical juncture left the Democratic Party leaderless and rudderless, while psychologically Wilson became increasingly divorced from reality and stubborn, meaning that such role as Wilson did play doomed the whole effort. Cooper argues that if Wilson had been himself he might have accepted all or most of the reservations that League opponents, especially Republican Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge, had attached to the bill of ratification. By failing to do so, Cooper argues, Wilson inadvertently conspired with the Republicans to “break the heart of the world.”

The focus on Wilson’s mental health before, during, and after the period of the stroke makes for an extremely vivid narrative of Wilson’s decisions and actions. The reader definitely gets a feeling for Wilson’s complex, troublous personality; even those who disagree with his views can begin to sympathize with him. After the stroke, however, the book descends into a laborious exploration of the struggle to obtain the necessary super-majority in the Senate to ratify the treaty, and Cooper’s inattention to the secondary players really shows. We get glimpses of the character of Wilson’s principal antagonist, Lodge, but we never really come to understand his true motivations and feelings, which is unfortunate, for the real tragedy lay not in Wilson’s failure but in Lodge’s.

Henry Cabot Lodge was not an isolationist. He was committed to a view of American great power nationalism similar to Teddy Roosevelt’s. He favored making a security agreement with Great Britain and France, and he deeply feared the results both for America and the world of a U.S. retreat into isolationism. His disagreement with Wilson, to the extent that it was ideological rather than partisan or personal, was not about Wilson’s desire to keep America committed to international engagement, but about the precise way in which Wilson wanted to go about securing that engagement. It seems clear that Lodge really did want to ratify the Versailles Treaty in some appropriately modified form, and that he was both elated and distraught when the Senate failed to do so—elated because he had defeated Wilson, distraught because he had defeated his own foreign policy aims. For in order to defeat his great adversary, Lodge had had to ally with the true Republican isolationists, such as Senators William Borah of Idaho and Frank Brandegee of Connecticut, who sincerely believed that America should not sully herself in the rough-and-tumble of European imperialistic diplomacy, but should remain a “city on the hill,” lighting a course of virtue for the world and leading by moral example.

Lodge was not committed to such views, but he had to work with Borah and Brandegee in order to defeat the treaty. He then found in a truly Faustian twist that the devil insisted on holding him to the deal he had made: in 1920, Lodge could not ignore the isolationists’ threats to abandon the party if their views weren’t incorporated into the platform. When Warren G. Harding was elected president, therefore, he inherited a foreign policy platform that quickly became isolationist. Lodge had outsmarted himself.

Cooper misjudges the nature of the struggle between Lodge and Wilson. He rightly points out that the disagreement came down to the infamous Article X of the League of Nations Covenant, which called upon all member states to be ready, in effect, to use armed force to protect the integrity and security of the other member states. The true isolationists seized on this article as an “entangling alliance” and a “permanent alliance” such as the founding fathers had warned against a century earlier. Lodge’s objection sprang from a different source. He believed that Wilson was trying to make U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic support for the League of Nations a routine, mechanical action that followed inevitably from a decision of the League council. He saw Wilson as attempting to end traditional diplomacy and foreign policy, demanding for the sake of universal peace that the U.S. and other League members abandon critical elements of their sovereignty. Lodge was right.

Wilsonian internationalism rested upon the belief that a strong international body could put an end to traditional balance-of-power politics, which Wilson detested. The League of Nations, able to call upon the military, diplomatic, and economic strength of its members to enforce its decisions, would deter international conflict, for what would-be aggressor would take action knowing that the major powers of the world would all oppose him? For deterrence to work, the enforcement had to be automatic: if member states could act or not depending on their own political concerns, the entire structure would fall apart. From Wilson’s perspective, Article X was, indeed, the heart of the treaty, and Lodge’s determination to circumscribe America’s acceptance of Article X would have “cut the heart out of the Covenant,” as Wilson repeatedly claimed.

For his part, Lodge believed that the United States should ally with the major democratic powers in the world in order to deter aggression and pursue democratic interests in a traditional power-political sense. He opposed the automatism that Wilson had inserted into the Covenant not only because it diminished America’s sovereignty, but also because it treated the nations of the world as indistinguishable—none inherently better, more trustworthy or more powerful than any other. Lodge did not believe that. He saw Germany as a threat and England (though having an unfortunate predilection for empire) as a potential ally. He wished to unite the democratic states of the world against the anti-democratic states, not through any automatism but through the conscious commitment of America’s power and influence to the right side. Lodge’s was the more complex and realistic view of the international scene, and it was most emphatically not isolationist. Neither was it necessarily incompatible with the establishment of an international organization such as the League of Nations.

Among those who favor internationalism, there is a fundamental disagreement over the role and meaning of international organizations. Some, like Wilson, wish to see international organizations keep the peace, and are willing in return to abandon a greater or lesser degree of national sovereignty. Others, like Lodge, believe that international organizations operate effectively only under the leadership of one or more nations that are interesed enough to enforce the general conditions of peace.

In a recent entry into this debate, Robert McNamara and James Blight offer a highly Wilsonian approach to international security in Wilson’s Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century. Pointing to the horrors of the last century’s wars, much as Wilson pointed to the horrors of World War I, they argue that America’s primary interest now and in the future should be to avoid such conflicts. In order to do so, America should refuse to take action in the world except “multilaterally,” that is, under the auspices of the United Nations or in conjunction with a globe-spanning coalition. They explicitly call for a return to Wilson’s vision of a world in which aggression is automatically opposed and, therefore, hopeless. They claim that only in this way can we avoid repeating in the 21st century the atrocities and mass killing that scarred the twentieth.

But the world is divided into states that are fundamentally satisfied with the current state of affairs, those that are fundamentally dissatisfied with it but unwilling to risk war to change it, and those that are willing to fight to resolve their dissatisfaction. The successful maintenance of peace rests on the shoulders of those whom peace serves best, the satisfied states. If they commit to use their power and influence jointly to prevent other states from using force to change the world situation, then peace is likely to prevail. If they are unwilling so to commit, then war will likely ensue. This calculation is independent of the presence or absence of international bodies. Be they never so binding, international agreements are unlikely ever to induce states to act against their interests as perceived by their people and their leaders. That is simply not the way states (or non-state actors, for that matter) work. The danger, the great danger, is that the states with an interest in preserving the peace will not be willing to do so, a problem that Wilsonian automatism then or now does nothing to correct.

For all their similarities, however, there is a fundamental difference in the way modern internationalists and old-fashioned Wilsonians approach the question. Wilson, like the isolationists, saw America as a fresh and pure influence in a corrupt, greedy, and violent world. While Borah and Brandegee sought to keep the U.S. out of the muck, Wilson and Lodge sought to use American virtue in order to improve the world so far as possible. Today’s Wilsonian internationalists like McNamara and Blight take exactly the opposite view. According to them, it’s America that poses a danger to the world through its excessive power and arrogance. The danger they see is that America will pursue its own interests in the world, blindly alienating the other decent states and undermining our ability to deter conflict. For Lodge and Wilson, international agreements would serve to commit America to a world she might otherwise abandon; for McNamara and Blight, they serve to contain America’s pseudo-imperialistic tendencies. Now we are the selfish, greedy, aggressive power that needs to be checked.

But the truth is that most of the world’s recent “conflict, killing, and catastrophe” has resulted not from American arrogance but from our inattentiveness. Our forays into international relations, including the use of force and the deployment of troops, have come about almost by a sort of absent-mindedness. Deployments to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and lately Afghanistan came after successive administrations had made determined efforts to ignore those areas, often despite the pleas of international organizations for us to get involved. In each case, our involvement came too late to prevent much of the violence and killing that McNamara and Blight rightly deplore, and with an inadequate commitment actually to resolve the fundamental problems that had generated that violence. Having failed to concern ourselves with the collapse of Afghanistan for a decade, on September 11, 2001, we paid a horrific price not for greed or aggressiveness, but for forgetfulness and an innate preference for isolationism. It remains unclear even in the aftermath of that horrific attack how committed the current administration is to bearing the burden of keeping the peace.

Wilson was wrong and so are McNamara and Blight. All three fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between the United States and the world. Like most other states, the U.S. behaves selfishly most of the time, pursuing its own national interests—as the people who elected the government have every right to expect. Like few other states, the U.S. has also behaved nobly in the past, expending the lives of its sons and daughters and considerable treasure to protect others. This has something to do with the fact that Americans see their national interest partly in universal terms, in standing up for republican government and individual liberty in the world.

At any rate, the U.S. is in a unique position. For 50 years the acknowledged Leader of the Free World, the enormous gap in power and capability between the U.S. and its allies, let alone its enemies, means that the U.S. remains the natural leader. This is a crucial fact that many internationalists ignore. In the era of nation-states, international organizations cannot run themselves. In the absence of a leader, a meeting of equals with diverging views (which describes any organization of independent states) becomes a debating society. Only with a leader to give direction and galvanize action can such an organization play a significant role in shaping world events. And in the world today, the U.S. alone can play the role of leader, for the only possible challenger for that role, the European Union, is itself the epitome of international debating societies.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, American leadership inspired not only the necessary U.N. resolutions but the participation of numerous Arab states in he resulting coalition. If the United States had hung back and awaited the automatic development of the coalition, as McNamara and Blight advise, Saddam would still hold Kuwait. Contrariwise, the U.N. began pressing for action to prevent genocide in the Balkans starting in the early 1990s—nothing happened until America decided to get involved. The cases of Somalia, Kosovo, and Rwanda are all similar. America leads whether it wishes to or not, and that is the only way that international organizations can function in today’s world.

Which is not to say that international organizations are altogether useless. The Wilsonians were quite right that the value of such organizations can be very great. They were wrong, and are still wrong, however, to seek automatism in the functioning of these organizations in a vain effort to restrict the sovereignty of nation states, whether for the purpose of involving the U.S. or restraining it.

But Lodge was also wrong and so are those who ally with isolationists in order to defeat Wilsonian internationalism. It is very important exactly how America becomes and remains engaged in the world. It is important to argue about the role of international organizations and the purposes of America’s international involvement. The most important thing, however, is to keep America involved. Our failure to remain engaged in the world after 1920 started a chain of events that facilitated Hitler’s rise to power and the beginning of World War II. Our failure to remain actively engaged today could have consequences even more deplorable, and even more unnecessary.