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.
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.”
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.”“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,”
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
and in the noninterventionist impulses of policymakers like President Barack
Obama and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
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.
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.”
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
To get a sense of the Monroe Doctrine’s reach, consider that:
Reagan lamented how Moscow “had violated the Monroe Doctrine and gotten away
with it twice, first in Cuba, then in Nicaragua.” 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.”
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.”
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.
And President Theodore Roosevelt urged that the
final settlement of World War I include “formal recognition of the Monroe
Doctrine” to promote regional stability.
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.”
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.”
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
In TR’s day, it was “intolerable conditions in Cuba,” “the massacre of the Jews
in Kishinev,” “cruelty and oppression” against Armenians.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.
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.”
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
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.” 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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
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,
his cues from Reagan, CIA Director William Casey told his deputies to “go out
and kill me 10,000 Russians until they give up.”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.
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
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
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
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.“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.”
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
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
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”—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—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.
there is an Obama doctrine, according to people within the administration, it
boils down to “Don’t do stupid stuff”—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.”
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.”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.”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
According to Clinton, “Great nations need organizing
principles”—mission statements—“and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an
 Washington, 1782; George Washington, "Maxims of
Washington: Political, Social, Moral, and Religious," John Schroeder, ed.,
 Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796; http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp
 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.
http://www.history.com/topics/monroe-doctrine ; http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/monroe.asp
 Reagan, An American Life, 1990, p.471.
http://www.history.com/topics/monroe-doctrine and Gaddis Smith, The Last Years of the Monroe
Doctrine, 1994, p.12.
 Roosevelt, “the Peace of Victory for which We Strive,”
 Eisenhower Doctrine, 1957, in Major Problems in
American Foreign Policy Volume II: Since 1914, Thomas Paterson, Ed., 1989,
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.
 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.
 Quoted in Henry Nau, Conservative Internationalism,
 Reagan, 1981; http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/reagan-quotes/
 NSDD 75, January 17, 1983, http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsdd/nsdd-75.pdf.
 From David Leebaert, The 50-Year Wound, p.547.
 Leebaert, pp.548-549.
 Bush, September 20, 2001,
 Bush January 29, 2002,
 National Security Strategy of the United States, 2002,
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.