Over the past week I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the foreign policies of past US presidents, in the context of Scott Powell’s Islamist Entanglement history course, and his excellent post about the Truman Doctrine.
If you take a look at the Wikipedia entry on the topic, you’ll see an overview of some of the major parts of past doctrines. It's by no means comprehensive and displays some biases, but it's a pretty good starting point. As I read it, I was suddenly struck by something. It’s not a groundbreaking idea, but at the very least an interesting one, and illustrative of an unfortunate historical trend.
Here is the “table of contents” for the Wiki entry:
1 Presidential doctrinesNow here it is again, this time with the year they were declared, and the time span between them:
- 1.1 Monroe Doctrine
- 1.2 Roosevelt Corollary
- 1.3 Truman Doctrine
- 1.4 Eisenhower Doctrine
- 1.5 Kennedy Doctrine
- 1.6 Johnson Doctrine
- 1.7 Nixon Doctrine
- 1.8 Carter Doctrine
- 1.9 Reagan Doctrine
- 1.10 Clinton Doctrine
- 1.11 Bush Doctrine
1 Presidential doctrinesAdmittedly, this isn’t as clear cut as it looks. Some of the doctrines since WWII really weren’t fully defined foundations for foreign policy (Kennedy, Carter, Clinton) and many of them were variations on a theme. But the pattern I initially saw still holds something worth exploring.
- 1.1 Monroe Doctrine - 1823
- 1.2 Roosevelt Corollary - 1904 (81 years)
- 1.3 Truman Doctrine - 1947 (43 years)
- 1.4 Eisenhower Doctrine - 1957 (10 years)
- 1.5 Kennedy Doctrine - 1961 (4 years)
- 1.6 Johnson Doctrine - 1965 (4 years)
- 1.7 Nixon Doctrine - 1969 (4 years)
- 1.8 Carter Doctrine - 1980 (11 years)
- 1.9 Reagan Doctrine - 1985 (5 years)
- 1.10 Clinton Doctrine - 1999 (14 years)
- 1.11 Bush Doctrine - 2001 (3 years)
Why did the Monroe Doctrine stand alone for 81 years? Why did it take another 43 years after the Teddy Roosevelt Corollary before Truman felt the need to declare a new doctrine? Why have there been so many since?
I submit that the Monroe Doctrine was a fundamentally sound, rationally self-interested foreign policy that worked so well, and was so right that no presidents for nearly a century wanted or needed to challenge it. Drastically simplified, here is what it said: “Nations of Europe, leave us alone and we’ll interact with you in a reasonable manner, and in turn we won’t interfere in European affairs. Meddle in the Americas, and you’ll pay.”
It doesn’t fit the intent of the post to go into more detail, but the essence of the Doctrine was not an internationalist or interventionist one, and did not state that the US would interfere in the affairs of nations in the Americas, either to help them or hinder them. It simply said that Europe’s meddlesome actions in the region would be interpreted as a threat, and the US would act accordingly in its own interests.
(I'm mulling over posting some longer thoughts about the Monroe Doctrine and its historical context, but in the interim I recommend reading the entire document yourself, including a scan of the original written speech.)
In 1904, Teddy drastically changed the course of US foreign policy by adding a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. It’s interesting to note that he didn’t create his own doctrine, but instead used the power and clarity of the original, and attached his rotten ideas to its coattails.
While the Monroe Doctrine was focused only on protecting American interests, and was concerned with the threat of force from Europe – a threat to the sovereignty of independent nations in the Americas was viewed as a threat to US interests, not for the sake of the other nations themselves – Roosevelt declared that the U.S. had a right and duty to interfere in the internal affairs of independent nations if they didn’t live up to whatever our standards happened to be.
All that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly, and prosperous. Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship. If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power. [emphasis and bold added]Backlash
So great was the break from the rationally self-interested policy that had served America so well for so long – and the public reaction to the US interventions in the Caribbean, and bad memories from WWI and Wilson’s League of Nations were negative enough – that President Coolidge reversed (partially) the Roosevelt Corollary in 1928. That partial repudiation, the Clark Memorandum, was somewhat contradictory and messy, but one interesting part was that it explicitly decoupled the Roosevelt Corollary from the Monroe Doctrine, rejecting that it had anything to do with Monroe. Then in 1934, even Franklin D. Roosevelt, for all his faults, continued on this track further distancing the US from interventionism.
Truman and Beyond
After WWII, as the Soviet threat became more and more obvious, Truman took a stand. As Scott Powell wrote so well:
“…Truman’s policy statement … made the all important connection between the broad abstraction of “international peace” and the obvious need to defend America’s interests. Based upon this reasoning, America took it upon itself to lead the world in a defense against communist expansion. For a period of over 40 years–the Cold War of 1947-1991–it attempted to act upon Truman’s premise that “international peace” and America’s interests were one. The core of his belief, and the essential nature of the policy, however, was the moral duty to support ‘free peoples.’”This crucial error of tying America’s interests to the wellbeing of “free peoples” anywhere on the globe, regardless of whether there was any direct relation to our self-interest or even any complimentary core beliefs (see Vietnam), led America down a path of being an interventionist world policeman against communism, for the sake of battling communism.
After that, all the other presidents pussyfooted around the same issue, wondering how much or little to give up -- either in American lives or American treasure -- to prop up this or that regime, without fundamentally challenging the core premise.
Roughly every four years, a new president would face different challenges in the battle against communism, and alter his doctrine to support it. See Carter, who told the Soviets to stay out of the Persian Gulf, but did nothing during the Iranian Revolution. He didn’t independently identify the threats based on a rational evaluation of America's interests, but merely tried to apply the faulty ideas of Truman to the situation.
After the Cold War and without the communists to focus on, Clinton directed American efforts haphazardly against genocide in Africa and the Balkans.
My main point is that there were two fundamental principles in play – rational self-interest and altruism – and the relative fitness of the ideas is reflected by the transition between them in the history of presidential doctrines.
For nearly a century, the guiding principle of American foreign policy was rational self-interest. Then, as it was eaten away (Teddy Roosevelt) and eventually replaced by the altruistic doctrine of Truman, later presidents seemed to thrash about, pragmatically changing foreign policy on the whim of the moment.
Admittedly, perhaps it was in the nature of increasingly media savvy presidencies where it seemed like a good idea to “have a doctrine”. It became the “thing to do”. But for that, we may not have had the glut of half-baked policies spouted in the past 20 years. The core ideas didn't change during that time, so it seems better to call everything since Truman a corollary to it.
But I think the pattern goes a bit deeper than just that. Because altruism as a founding guideline for the policy of a nation is ultimately untenable, and the needs of those others we are to sacrifice for – and even who we are supposed to sacrifice for – are constantly shifting, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that our leaders can’t come up with a straightforward course of action and stick to it.
Until a president can fully understand the fundamental principles of the Monroe Doctrine, embrace them, and apply them to America's foreign policy today, we are doomed to watch our leaders rearranging the deck chairs.
Update: Added Roosevelt Corollary quotation rather than linking to it. (03/24/08)
See also: Palin and the Bush Doctrine in Historical Context (09/18/08)