In the early months of the Clinton administration in 1993, not only Bill Clinton himself but most of his top foreign policy officials, including the then secretary of state, Warren Christopher, and his successor, Madeleine Albright, made co-ordinated speeches announcing that the new administration's approach to the world would be "Wilsonian".
It was not entirely clear what this term meant to them at the time. Approximately it seemed to mean that the end of the cold war and the emergence of the US as "the only superpower" offered a historic opportunity for the US to persuade the rest of the world to adopt what were presented as the core American values of democracy and free-market capitalism.
Since then the Clintonian ship has been blown off the course it planned in those innocent early days by a series of unexpected problems. The president himself reacted to TV pictures of an American soldier's body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu not - as Johnson, Nixon or Reagan might have done - by swearing not to rest until American honour had been vindicated in Somalia, but by ordering abrupt withdrawal. Then came the victory of Newt Gingrich and his conservative Republicans in November 1994 and the self-inflicted Monica Lewinsky episode, which distracted both the president and the media from world realities for the whole of 1998.
Since then American foreign policy has oscillated between periods of passivity and sudden lashing out, as in the renewed bombing of Iraq or the reaction to the bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. At the moment we are watching a president, politically crippled by his self-inflicted troubles, who is simultaneously lashing out by remorselessly increasing the targets for bombing in Serbia and shrinking from the use of ground troops that alone could resolve the appalling crisis in Kosovo.
Now the American foreign-policy scholar, Frank Ninkovich, has published a timely reinterpretation of what a "Wilsonian" foreign policy means. Brushing aside the traditional interpretation, which held that the US alternated between "interventionist" and "isolationist" impulses throughout the 20th century, Ninkovich rightly insists that from the very beginning of the century isolation was not a serious option.
Instead he maintains, correctly, that the alternative has been what he calls "normal internationalism". This is a state of affairs in which the US expanded its economic, cultural and political influence while co-operating, not competing, with other powers, in line with "Wilsonian" internationalism, a more embattled response to successive international crises, inspired by fear of global disaster.
Wilson is often caricatured as a naive idealist but he was actually remarkably hard-headed. He saw that the technological possibility of "total war" meant that war was no longer an available instrument of diplomacy. It meant that forces hostile to liberal democracy posed new dangers and it permanently upset the European balance of power. It implied that politics and warfare would be global. And it convinced Wilson that any conflict might escalate into a world war.
Those assumptions, or variants of them, led Wilson to try, unsuccessfully, to set up the League of Nations. They also underlie Franklin Roosevelt's determination to commit the US to defeating fascism, and the subsequent American involvement in the cold war. Ninkovich's thesis is that Wilson's vision of world politics has proved more accurate than the "realistic" assumptions of the likes of Henry Kissinger.
Ninkovich is uninterested, to a remarkable degree, in the political ideas, ambitions and wishes of any but Americans - an attitude that is perhaps understandable in the age of the "last superpower". For the real competition against Wilsonian foreign policy must now come not from abroad but from those in the US, especially conservative Republicans, who are not convinced that the US needs to involve itself in a restless and troublesome outside world at all - except as investor, lender and exporter, and indeed also as investee, borrower and importer.
"Normal internationalism", in other words, is the course the US pursued in the 1920s. My room-mate at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s, who came from Iowa, was a convinced "normal internationalist" in this sense. "God dammit," he liked to say, "we don't have to be nice to anyone."
The problem for American foreign policy at this very moment, with a Republican-controlled Congress limiting the Clinton administration's power to take the kind of military action that would achieve its stated objectives in the Balkans, is that a Wilsonian internationalist administration is held in a wrestler's lock by a "normal internationalist" majority in Congress.
The situation could change quickly in a number of ways. Some disaster or atrocity could convert the Republicans to the Wilsonian view that the outside world matters and must be confronted. The Republicans could lose control next year of the House of Representatives (they probably will) and the Senate (less likely), or fail to gain the White House (which is too close to call, with Bill Bradley looking a stronger but less likely Democratic champion than Al Gore). Events in the Balkans could end in a ground war, in a negotiated diplomatic settlement or in a rift between the US and all or most of its Nato partners. These are unpredictable times.
What is clear is that, precisely because the US is "the last superpower" (and bombing Chinese embassies is not perhaps the best way of maintaining that position for another generation), "normal internationalism" - meaning expanding American economic interests and cultural influence without taking responsibility for the world's political evolution - is as short-sighted now as it was in the 1920s.
The heart of Woodrow Wilson's vision was that the ultimate judge of American policies would be world opinion. At the time, and as his legacy was torn to pieces by fascists, communists and post-colonial nationalists, that vision looked naive. Today, given the power of television, it does not seem so foolish. But the corollary is that those who bring their case before the high tribunal of world opinion must respect that tribunal and never assume that whatever reflects short-term American interests or narrow American perceptions will automatically be endorsed by the judgement of the world.
Godfrey Hodgson is director of the Reuter Foundation Programme, Oxford University