The American Legion Magazine | 4.1.16
By Alan W. Dowd

Foreign-policy doctrines run the gamut from the unforgettable to the unremarkable. Some have meaning and force long after their architect leaves office, while others float away like pieces of driftwood. Some presidents are known for theirs, while some presidents never articulate one.

In fact, most presidents don’t plan on announcing a foreign-policy doctrine. Rather, events have a way of forcing a president to react—a revolution or debt crisis, the collapse of great power, the rise of a nascent power, the emergence of a new threat, the end of an old order. That reaction sets the parameters for a policy. And that policy can evolve into a doctrine.

Like mission statements, these doctrines help presidents define their vision for the American people and declare to the world: “This is America’s purpose. This is what we believe in, what we stand for, what we will fight against.”


Although the history books don’t record a “Washington Doctrine,” America’s first commander-in-chief definitely had a vision for U.S. foreign policy.

Perhaps the words that best describe President Washington’s doctrine are independence and preparedness.

“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” he explained at the end of his presidency. “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition?” he asked, adding, “Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course.”[1]

Indeed, Washington used his farewell address to argue for independence from Europe and against “foreign alliances, attachments and intrigues.”

To maintain America’s independence, Washington advocated military preparedness: “There is nothing so likely to produce peace,” he counseled, “as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.”[2]“A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined…their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories as tend to render them independent of others for essential, particularly military, supplies,” he said. “Timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it,” he observed.[3]

Traces of Washington’s doctrine can be seen in America’s reluctance to enter World War I and World War II; in the post-World War II consensus supporting peace through strength; in recent polling that reveals a majority of Americans believe the United States “should mind its own business internationally”[4]; and in the noninterventionist impulses of policymakers like President Barack Obama and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).[5]

Keeping the Peace

As the Russian Empire eyed parts of North America and the Spanish Empire reeled from revolutions in South America, President James Monroe issued America’s most famous foreign-policy doctrine, putting Europe on notice that “the American continents” are “not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” The United States would view such interference as a hostile act.[6]

He arrived at that conclusion because Europe’s “political system” was “essentially different…from that of America.” Thus, he concluded, “It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness.”[7]

Monroe—and the doctrine’s chief architect, then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams—clearly built on Washington’s notion of independence from Europe. In fact, the British proposed a joint Anglo-American declaration to warn continental Europe against encroachment in the Americas. But Adams and Monroe thought this would highlight American weakness.  

To get a sense of the Monroe Doctrine’s reach, consider that:

·         President Ronald Reagan lamented how Moscow “had violated the Monroe Doctrine and gotten away with it twice, first in Cuba, then in Nicaragua.”[8] His secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, cited the Monroe Doctrine to argue, “There should be no interference, no sponsorship of any kind of military activity in this hemisphere, by countries in other hemispheres.”[9]

·         As the crisis in Cuba heated up, President John Kennedy explained, “The Monroe Doctrine means what it has meant since President Monroe and John Quincy Adams enunciated it, and that is that we would oppose a foreign power extending its power to the Western Hemisphere.”[10]

·         President Franklin Roosevelt, on the eve of U.S. entry into World War II, cited “the obligation that we have under the Monroe Doctrine for the protection” of the Americas.[11]

·         And President Theodore Roosevelt urged that the final settlement of World War I include “formal recognition of the Monroe Doctrine” to promote regional stability.[12]

TR used Monroe’s mission statement as a jumping-off point for what came to be called the “Roosevelt Corollary.” But it was essentially TR’s own doctrine. 

A debt crisis in Venezuela—and Germany and Britain’s menacing response to it—prompted TR to declare that the United States would intervene as a “last resort” to ensure that nations in the Americas did not invite “foreign aggression to the detriment of the entire body of American nations.”[13]

Declaring “all that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly and prosperous,” TR warned that “Chronic wrongdoing or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society…may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.”[14] 

So, while the Monroe Doctrine sought to keep Europe out of Latin America, TR’s doctrine would be used as an excuse to get the United States in, which created its own problems.

Even so, TR offered ahead-of-his-time views on why and when America should intervene overseas.

In a break from America’s past, he noted there are times to act “in the interest of humanity at large” and “to show our disapproval.” And in a foreshadowing of America’s future, he argued “there are occasional crimes committed on so vast a scale and of such peculiar horror” that “action may be justifiable and proper.”[15]

In TR’s day, it was “intolerable conditions in Cuba,” “the massacre of the Jews in Kishinev,” “cruelty and oppression” against Armenians.[16]In our day, it’s Bashar Assad’s barrel-bombs, North Korea’s vast prison state, Beijing’s forced-labor camps, the Islamic State’s mass-murders.

Cold War Continuity

President Harry Truman’s initial postwar plan was simply to bring the troops home, but then, in 1947, an exhausted Britain informed Washington that it could no longer fulfill its commitments in Turkey and Greece. Both countries were under assault by communist elements.

In response, Truman sketched the outlines of a doctrine that would guide U.S. foreign policy for the next four decades: “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”[17]

Truman estimated that Turkey and Greece needed $400 million—more than 1 percent of the federal budget in 1947—and that was only the beginning. Three months later, the Truman administration unveiled the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe; a year later, the U.S. military was leading the Berlin Airlift to sustain and save West Berlin; two years later, NATO was formed to defend Western Europe, contain the Soviet Empire and deter Moscow; three years later, Americans were fighting for South Korea.

The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms,” Truman intoned. The American public agreed, ratifying the Truman Doctrine for nearly half-a-century.

Although President Dwight Eisenhower didn’t invoke the words “Truman Doctrine”—after all, he was bitterly critical of Truman’s approach to Korea—Eisenhower continued Truman’s twin goals of containment and deterrence. In an echo of the Truman Doctrine, the Eisenhower Doctrine pledged U.S. support to “protect the territorial integrity and political independence” of nations in the Middle East “against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism.”[18]

Eisenhower reinforced his doctrine—and Truman’s—with a series of national-security directives that outlined a policy of muscular nuclear deterrence, promising “massive retaliatory damage by offensive strategic striking power,” threatening the use of “military force against any aggression by Soviet bloc armed forces,” and declaring that nuclear weapons would be “as available for use as other munitions.”[19] Indeed, when Nikita Khrushchev boasted about the Red Army’s overwhelming conventional edge in Germany, Eisenhower fired back, “If you attack us in Germany, there will be nothing conventional about our response.”[20]

By the early 1970s, Washington dialed back the rhetoric and began to pursue a policy of détente. But what Washington saw as a chance for East-West accommodation, Moscow saw as a window of opportunity. By 1979, Moscow had increased military spending; enlarged its military; grown less, not more, accommodating; and expanded its global footprint.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter abandoned détente, increased defense spending and declared, “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

The Carter Doctrine is a classic example of a president being forced to change strategy in reaction to events. So dramatic was Carter’s reversal that the “Reagan buildup” arguably began under Carter.

Reagan would resuscitate America’s demoralized military, arm anti-communists, challenge the legitimacy of the Soviet state and, as he explained in 1981, “threaten the Soviets with our ability to out-build them.”[21]

He also employed rhetoric as a weapon—calling the USSR “an evil empire,” dismissing communism as “a sad, bizarre chapter in human history” and explaining it was time to move beyond the make-believe notion that the Soviet and Western systems were somehow equivalent. “The West will not contain communism,” he said with impatient disdain in 1981. “It will transcend communism.”[22]

A 1983 policy directive declared that the U.S. “must rebuild the credibility of its commitment to resist Soviet encroachment on U.S. interests and those of its allies,” support “Third World states that are willing to resist Soviet pressures,” and “contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism by competing…with the Soviet Union in all international arenas.”[23]

In various ways  and to varying degrees—technological assistance, covert support, weapons shipments, direct U.S. military intervention—the Reagan Doctrine aided anti-communist forces and democratic movements in Central America, the Caribbean, Poland, Africa and, of course, Afghanistan.

Taking his cues from Reagan, CIA Director William Casey told his deputies to “go out and kill me 10,000 Russians until they give up.”[24]Working with the mujahidin, the CIA did that and then some. The Red Army would lose 15,000 dead and 35,000 wounded. “The CIA went so far as to work with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency to help the resistance carry out strikes…into Tajikistan, still a Soviet republic,” historian Derek Leebaert notes in The Fifty Year Wound, adding, “nothing like this had been done against Moscow” since the beginning of the Cold War.[25]

Indeed, the Reagan Doctrine blended the Truman Doctrine’s containment strategy with elements of the more aggressive “rollback” strategy that lay largely dormant since Gen. MacArthur tried to sweep the entire Korean Peninsula of communism. The communist bloc’s ferocious response effectively ended the debate between containment and rollback—until Reagan.

By the end of Reagan’s presidency, the Cold War had been won. Nine months later, the Berlin Wall was gone—two years later, so was the Soviet Union.

Reaction and Prevention  

The post-9/11 doctrine of President George W. Bush, like the Truman Doctrine, was a reaction to a radically changed threat environment—and like the Truman Doctrine, much of it has been embraced, albeit tacitly, by a highly-critical successor.

The Bush Doctrine actually has two distinct elements. The first holds that “Any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”[26] 

Bush employed this element of his doctrine by toppling the Taliban regime of Afghanistan, which made common cause with al Qaeda. Obama has employed it by attacking terrorist organizations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan—states that are either unable or unwilling to adequately confront terrorism inside their borders.

The second element of the Bush Doctrine proved far more controversial than simply confronting terrorist groups and the states that harbor them. “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons,” Bush declared in 2002.[27]“As a matter of common sense and self-defense,” his national-security strategy added, “America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.”[28]

Bush was arguing that 9/11 had changed the DNA of American foreign policy: Deterrence and containment, maintaining the status quo and promoting stability, giving repeat-offenders like Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt, were no longer enough to protect the nation. Congress overwhelmingly agreed. And the United States launched a preventive war against Iraq.

A U.S.-led coalition ended Saddam’s regime, eliminated a persistent threat to U.S. interests and paved the way for a democratic government, but at a high cost: 4,489 Americans killed and 30,000 wounded.

Although Obama officially jettisoned preventive war, the cyber war against Iran’s possiblenuclear-weapons program—which Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA, calls the first cyberattack “used to effect physical destruction”[29]—and the drone war against possible terrorist threats in Pakistan and Yemen—which, according to published reports, “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants” regardless of what they are doing or planning[30]—are examples of preventive war. 

To be sure, Obama’s war on terrorism is more constrained than Bush’s. However, it’s shaped and shadowed by the deep imprint of his predecessor’s doctrine.

If there is an Obama doctrine, according to people within the administration, it boils down to “Don’t do stupid stuff”[31]—with an emphasis on “don’t.” Don’t encourage Iran’s Twitter Revolution. Don’t follow through on NATO’s missile-defense plans in Poland. Don’t lead NATO in Libya. Don’t make long-term commitments to Iraq or Afghanistan. Don’t stand by Egypt’s pro-U.S. autocracy in 2011 or anti-U.S. democracy in 2013. Don’t send defensive weapons to Ukraine. Don’t punish Assad for using WMDs. Don’t get involved in Syria or backslide into Iraq.

This shift away from intervention was predictable. Like a pendulum, U.S. foreign policy swung back from the hyperactivity of the immediate post-9/11 era. But has the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction?

It appears that Obama was so intent to avoid the mistakes Bush made by intervening in Iraq that he made the mistake of not staying in Iraq and then not returning to Iraq—until it was almost too late. Among the unintended consequences of the “Don’t do stupid stuff” doctrine surely are the rise of ISIS, the prolonging of Syria’s civil war and a resurgent Russian role in the Middle East—all of which benefitted from Washington’s hands-off approach to the symbiotic chaos of Syria and Iraq.

But don’t take my word for it. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Carter and longtime Obama supporter, blames Russia’s lunge into Syria on “American political impotence.”[32]

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta argues the Obama White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”[33]Noting how “inaction” carries “profound risks and costs for our national security,” Gen David Petraeus, CIA director during Obama’s first term, calls Syria “a geopolitical Chernobyl.”[34]Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concludes “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad…left a big vacuum which the jihadists have now filled.”[35]

According to Clinton, “Great nations need organizing principles”—mission statements—“and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”[36]


[2] Washington, 1782; George Washington, "Maxims of Washington: Political, Social, Moral, and Religious," John Schroeder, ed., 1854, p.102.

[3] Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796; http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp


[5] See http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/06/22/remarks-president-way-forward-afghanistan and http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2013/09/06/obama_i_was_elected_to_end_wars_not_start_them.html and  http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2013/02/06/rand_paul_at_heritage_restoring_the_founders_vision_of_foreign_policy.html and http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/2014/05/28/president-obama-speaks-west-point-graduates#transcript.

[6]http://www.history.com/topics/monroe-doctrine ; http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/monroe.asp

[7] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/monroe.asp

[8] Reagan, An American Life, 1990, p.471.

[9]http://www.history.com/topics/monroe-doctrine and Gaddis Smith, The Last Years of the Monroe Doctrine, 1994, p.12.

[10] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=8839

[11] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=16107

[12] Roosevelt, “the Peace of Victory for which We Strive,” July 1917.

[13] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29545

[14] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29545

[15] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29545

[16] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29545

[17] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/trudoc.asp

[18] Eisenhower Doctrine, 1957, in Major Problems in American Foreign Policy Volume II: Since 1914, Thomas Paterson, Ed., 1989, p.454.

[19]https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1952-54v02p1/d126 and https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1952-54v02p1/d92 and “National Security Council Paper No. 162/2” in Merrill and Paterson, Major Problems in American Foreign Relations Volume II: Since 1914, 2005, pp.291-292.

[20] David Eisenhower and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight Eisenhower, 1961-1969, New York, Simon and Schuster, 2010, p.86.

[21] Quoted in Henry Nau, Conservative Internationalism, 2013, p.191.

[22] Reagan, 1981; http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/reagan-quotes/

[23] NSDD 75, January 17, 1983, http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsdd/nsdd-75.pdf.

[24] From David Leebaert, The 50-Year Wound, p.547.

[25] Leebaert, pp.548-549.

[26] Bush, September 20, 2001, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html

[27] Bush January 29, 2002, http://edition.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/01/29/bush.speech.txt/

[28] National Security Strategy of the United States, 2002, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/nsc/nss/2002/




[32]http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/c1ec2488-6aa8-11e5-8171-ba1968cf791a.html?siteedition=uk#axzz3ntJB0gYV and http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/24/AR2007082402127.html.