In 1996, Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of American foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, coined what is likely to go down as the definitive epitaph for the Clinton Administration’s approach to the world: “foreign policy as social work.”

Mandelbaum’s critical judgment was of some interest because he was considered an old Friend of Bill, a fellow student at Oxford in the 1960s. Mandelbaum had been a Democratic foreign policy adviser during the 1992 presidential campaign and was widely expected to receive a senior position when Clinton took office. He did not, for whatever reason. Other FOBs, such as Strobe Talbott and Sandy Berger, did. Mandelbaum’s essay, written four years later, could be sour grapes. Or Mandelbaum might say, as James Madison did of Alexander Hamilton after their famous split: “rather, Colonel H. deserted me.”

Mandelbaum’s point of departure in his latest book, The Ideas that Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century, is another president, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson came to the Versailles peace conference after WWI with a set of ideas for remaking the international system to ensure that another such conflict could never take place. The heart of his program was the establishment of an international organization, the League of Nations, to enforce a collective peace. But underlying Wilson’s vision was a tripartite liberal approach to international relations that had emerged in Anglo-American thought over the previous century: restraints on armaments, popular government, and the unimpeded flow of commerce across national borders. The Anglo-American liberal conception rested on developments themselves even older: the industrial revolution, with its promise of unprecedented material prosperity; and the French Revolution, which established popular sovereignty as the new basis for political legitimacy.

Mandelbaum salutes Wilson for his prescience rather than for his statesmanship. The liberal vision was not then feasible, Mandelbaum argues, because the world’s sovereign states would not quickly or voluntarily surrender their sovereign prerogatives. More time, and another great shooting war and a Cold War, would be required for liberal approaches to defeat the systemic illiberalism that the fascist and Communist powers embodied. When the smoke cleared at the outset of the 21st century, Wilson’s ideas had come to dominate the world. To be sure, liberal internationalism is not universal, but it is hegemonic. It provides the most widely adopted set of political and economic principles and institutions. It is practiced and promoted by the most powerful members of the international system. It has no serious, fully articulated rival as a set of principles for organizing the world’s military relations, politics, and economics.

The liberal world is dominated by three major ideas, variations on the Wilsonian vision, which form together a virtuous circle. Peace is the preferred basis for relations among countries; democracy is the optimal way to organize political life within them; and the free market is the indispensable vehicle for making them prosper. The liberal theory of history holds that democracies tend to practice peaceful foreign policies and that where free markets are established, their working, over time, tends to promote democracy.

For Mandelbaum, the creation (and expansion) of this virtuous circle begins with economics. “The future of international relations, and of public life within the world’s sovereign states, rests on the fate of the liberal method for organizing economic activity, the free market.” The economic history of the 20th century teaches the lesson that national economies thrive to the extent that they have access to a global market. The international economic order is the creation of the countries of the liberal core. Its upkeep is their responsibility, and particularly that of the United States.

As a condition for full participation in the global marketplace, nations must in turn undergo a fundamental cultural transformation that opens them up to liberal political norms. A democratic peace can then follow, reinforced by a new formula for common security: the transparency of all national military operations and forces, and the configuration of all such military forces so that they are suitable for defense but not attack.

Mandelbaum insists that the liberal order can, should, and will be expanded outward from the civilizational core of (basically) the United States, Europe, and Japan. But we cannot be impatient. Cultural change of the kind that affects economic performance typically comes from social learning based on millions of discrete individual experiences. Such change does not take place overnight. While cultures do change and have always changed, they cannot readily be changed by acts of official policy. Establishing liberal political and economic institutions and embracing liberal security policies is less like agriculture than horticulture.

The Cold War is a much better example, and exemplar, of the successful transmission of cultural values than is World War II, Mandelbaum argues. The Cold War was won not by conflict but by “conversion”—the gradual loss of faith in Communism and a leap of faith to embrace liberal and economic principles. The victory of the Western ideas should be understood fundamentally as the product of the impersonal working of long-term global trends and social forces that are anonymous, pervasive, and not readily controlled. Norman Angell’s famous argument in The Great Illusion (1910) was not wrong, just premature. The status of war has since undergone a dramatic transformation. The peoples of the liberal civilizational core, with the experience of two world wars behind them, now consider war morally dubious and politically pointless. The existence of nuclear weapons greatly enhanced this belief, which even the Soviet Union did not dare challenge through war.

But why did the Communists choose to abandon even the field of peaceful competition? More generally, why should non-liberal cultures change to embrace an economic system that will lead eventually, if not always intentionally, to liberal democracy and pacific foreign policies? Mandelbaum argues that modern liberalism has created a new standard for political legitimacy: prosperity. The industrial revolution (and one might add, modern science), for the first time in history, made general affluence possible. Once made possible, it came to be universally desired. The highest goal of political life is, increasingly, to foster this affluence, which can be guaranteed only through participation in a global market economy.

We thus find ourselves brought back explicitly to the founders of modern liberalism—before Wilson, even before the French and industrial revolutions—to Hobbes and particularly to Bacon and Locke and Adam Smith. According to Mandelbaum:

Human happiness, by one definition at least, is a product of modernity. Insofar as it presumes the existence of choice among different life experiences and outcomes, with some being preferable to others, happiness became possible only with the creation, set in motion by the French and industrial revolutions, of alternatives to the tightly circumscribed traditional world in which a person’s life was a social and economic replica of his or her parents…. There was, for the first time in the modern era, a rough consensus on the political, economic and international conditions best suited for them to be happy. For this purpose liberalism was the sole surviving standard.

Mandelbaum acknowledges that the endurance of particular cultures, however liberal, still requires the recognition of national sovereignty—the rock upon which Wilson’s League of Nations ultimately foundered. But how is cooperation ensured in a world of sovereign nation states? The European Union foreshadows the way in which the world of the 21st century—or perhaps the 22nd century—will be organized.

With no overarching authority, sovereign states [in the EU] hewed to liberal norms not because they were required to but because they wished to do so. The wish was born of a common, broad, and deep commitment to liberal principles, which, in each case, was rooted in the politics and economics of the participating countries themselves. They could build and maintain liberalism abroad cooperatively because they practiced liberalism at home individually. It was not only the EU but the common security order and the international trade and monetary systems that validated the liberal theory of history, or at least its major premise—that liberal values and practices are mutually reinforcing across the different sectors of political and economic life.

Of course, most of the world does not look like the European Union. Over time, Mandelbaum assures us, we can depend on long-term social forces to get us there. In the meantime, strategy, policy, and agency do have some role in aiding history. The prospects for the Wilsonian triad, unprecedentedly favorable as they are, still depend on what governments do. The emerging liberal order needs the political and economic equivalents of dikes, dams, canal locks, and embankments to support and channel progressive social forces. The construction crews are sovereign states. Some are more important than others, and their roles vary. The United States matters most of all.

Mandelbaum, then, takes the side of Francis Fukuyama in the debate with Samuel Huntington, on the theoretical question of whether the (progressive) forces of history can triumph over cultural differences. In practice, however, Mandelbaum is no more inclined than is Huntington to jump into civilizational clashes in order to enforce liberal norms. In fact, Mandelbaum’s real argument is with those who would have the United States plunge into such swamps and quicksand. The United States ought to focus on defending and expanding the liberal core of democratic and free-market states. This requires above all taking care of business, literally and figuratively, with the other great powers (including Russia and China), not remaking the developing world in America’s image. Let history on the periphery take care of itself.

Mandelbaum’s real ally is George Kennan, not Woodrow Wilson. During the 1960s and ’70s, Kennan became a very attractive figure to those who opposed an anti-Communist foreign policy and the Vietnam War but who still favored American engagement in the world. Kennan, who thought of himself as the anti-Wilson, was the putative father of containment in the late 1940s. He emphasized the importance of the core over the periphery and of an indirect and gradual approach that relied on the political and economic forces of history to deal with Soviet Russia. Kennan later decried what he regarded as the dangerous militarization and globalization of containment, which led (he said) to the nuclear arms race and disasters such as Vietnam. This is the faith that Bill Clinton arguably deserted with his humanitarian activism and nation-building in the 1990s.

All this suggests that Mandelbaum is not really a Wilsonian. He is perhaps creating an argument—a noble lie—designed to resonate with Americans, one that engages the United States in international affairs yet serves to restrain and discipline its actions. (Kennan himself, in his later years, has had some nice things to say about Wilson.) Mandelbaum’s assessment of the international situation and the chances for backsliding from the liberal order—if you work through his text—is actually quite realistic and sober. He writes in answer to those who criticize the adverse effects of modern liberalism: “The one thing worse than the triumph of the ideas that conquered the world is their defeat.” This is hardly a Wilsonian battle cry of freedom.

These are no longer the go-go 1990s, when economics indeed seemed to have displaced security as the motive force in world history (as Bill Clinton himself argued). Mandelbaum insists that September 11, 2001, did not really change things; that terrorism itself cannot destroy the liberal core. He is probably right about that. But the world feels different. History, if one takes History seriously, looks different. We now ask ourselves, why do they hate us? And not just the Muslims, but the Koreans, North and South, and perhaps the Chinese and others, too. They don’t all hate us, of course, but the world—History—seems for the moment at least to be awash in strong, violent, anti-American and anti-liberal emotions, not in the desire for comfortable self-preservation. But in some places, notably Western Europe, the desire for comfortable self-preservation may indeed have become the central goal of political life. If so, they may ultimately buckle before peoples who are prepared (as Pakistani leaders have said, before taking their own money to Swiss bank accounts) to eat dirt if necessary to obtain nuclear weapons.

Many of Mandelbaum’s particular policy prescriptions may make sense, but we will need other standards besides the latest interpretation of history by which to judge those policies, and to judge ourselves.