For most of the 20th century, American foreign policy was guided by a set of assumptions that were formulated during World War I by President Woodrow Wilson. In this re-examination, Frank Ninkovich argues that the Wilsonian outlook, far from being a crusading, idealistic doctrine, was reactive, practical, and grounded in fear. Wilson and his successors believed it absolutely essential to guard against world war or global domination, with the underlying aim of safeguarding and nurturing political harmony and commercial co-operation among the great powers. As the world entered a period of unprecedented turbulence, Wilsonianism became a "crisis internationalism" dedicated to preserving the benign vision of "normal internationalism" with which the United States entered the 20th century. In the process of describing Wilson's legacy, Ninkovich reinterprets most of the 20th century's main foreign policy developments. He views the 1920s, for example, not as an isolationist period but as a reversion to Taft's Dollar Diplomacy.
The Cold War, with its faraway military interventions, illustrates Wilsonian America's preoccupation with achieving a cohesive world opinion and its abandonment of traditional, regional conceptions of national interest. The book seeks to offer an alternative to traditional interest-based interpretations of US foreign policy. In revising the usual view of Wilson's contribution, Ninkovich shows the extraordinary degree to which Wilsonian ideas guided American policy through a century of conflict and tension.