A Brief History of Presidential Doctrines

For nearly a century, the guiding principle of American foreign policy was rational self-interest, as profoundly stated in the Monroe Doctrine. Then everything changed with the imposition of the Roosevelt Corollary, taking the country in a diametrically opposite direction. The country has been lost ever since, with later presidents thrashing about, pragmatically changing foreign policy on the whim of the moment.

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 doctrines
  • 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
Now here it is again, this time with the year they were declared, and the time span between them:
1 Presidential doctrines
  • 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)
Admittedly, 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.

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]

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)


Jenn Casey said...

Very interesting post, I enjoyed it a lot. Nothing really to add just now, but you've given me much to think over. Thanks.

Stephen Bourque said...

This is a very insightful post - I think you’ve made a few important connections.

First is the interesting observation that Roosevelt’s dreadful policies “rode the coattails” of the Monroe Doctrine. It is so frustratingly common for bad ideas to attach themselves to the prestige and virtue of good ideas, in order to gain a respectability that they do not deserve.

Above all, though, I like your arrangement of the durations between the several doctrines as a means of highlighting the pragmatic floundering of the last half century. It is quite logical to regard the sheer length of time that the Monroe Doctrine stood as a testament to its reasonableness. Oh, to have such a rational foreign policy today!

C. August said...

Thanks for the comments, Jenn and SB.

SB: As I was reading the details about the Roosevelt Corollary and the fact that a president as forgotten as Calvin Coolidge thought that it had no place being attached to the Monroe Doctrine, it suddenly struck me that a man like Teddy Roosevelt would have certainly wanted to co-opt the prestige of Monroe to make his own ideas slide through.

And the language he used! "Hearty friendship"? If a country can "act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters... it need fear no interference from the United States." What? The? Hell?

As I said in an earlier post, I'm re-reading Atlas Shrugged. I'd swear that Ayn Rand read the Roosevelt Corollary and used it as an example to emulate for the way the second-handers speak throughout the book. The only thing the Corollary is missing is "it seems to me".

Sadly, with the crop of potential presidents we currently have, none will be able to do any better. Strangely, I have the sense that the War Hero would be the one to craft the most sacrificial policy of all. That sense isn't based on anything concrete I can name, but even though he is standing up for "The Surge" (coming this summer to a theater near you!) he seems like the least capable of identifying both the real threats, and America's real interests.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I am a Professor of Social Work at Missouri State University and this semester I am teaching Social Welfare Policy and Services. We are studying the use of historical policy analysis to understand current policy. I thought, in light of recent events concerning the question posed to Palin by Charlie Gibson about the Bush Doctrine, that it might be interesting for my class to take a look at the history of presidential foreign policy doctrines and to see if we can gain a better understanding of how we arrived where we are today (and hopefully why it is so important that a vice presidential candidate be savvy on these issues!). In conducting an internet search of "history of presidential foreign policy", I found your post right away. Thank you for your thoughtful look at this. I thought we might have to come up with our own conclusions, but you have given us a wonderful framework from which to start a discussion. Your post provides an EXCELLENT example of a historical policy analysis and one that will not put my students to sleep! Technology in our classroom allows me to pull documents up directly from the internet and view them on a large overhead screen. I plan to have my students read what you have written, making sure you are credited, and discuss from there. I have a classroom of very bright thinkers and I'm looking forward to this discussion tomorrow. I'm sure your intention was to stimulate some intellectual discourse on this subject, so I wanted to let you know you have succeeded. Thanks again!

C. August said...

Hi Kelli,

I'm pleased that you got something out of the post, and I think it's great that you might use it as a classroom resource. (I'd also highly recommend the post I linked to about the Truman Doctrine for more in-depth context on that specific part of history.)

You are right that my intent was to get people thinking, and to provide insights that one might not see in more mainstream outlets. To that end, I'll also be happy to respond to comments from you or your students on this topic.

C. August said...

This morning I posted a new piece exploring Palin and the Bush Doctrine in detail.

It's longer than this post, but goes into more detail about both the Monroe and Truman Doctrines, which I think provide the best contrasts and comparisons to the various iterations of the Bush Doctrine.

Apollo said...

What are your views of the "Clark Memorandum" on the Monroe Doctrine, written by Calvin Coolidge’s undersecretary of state J. Reuben Clark?

C. August said...

I think it was a fascinating repudiation of the Roosevelt Corollary. (see my paragraph in the post with the heading "Backlash")

It seems that the general view is that Clark was simply wishing to stop the aggressive interventionism of Roosevelt, but I read it more deeply than that.

Roosevelt's view was, at core, an altruistic one, no matter how much saber rattling he did. Clark's statement was the exact opposite. Here is an excerpt that is enlightening. Instead of having a duty to protect Latin America, not only from aggression but from themselves if they didn't live up to our standards,

"The [Monroe] Doctrine makes the United States a guarantor, in effect, of the independence of Latin American states, though without the obligations of a guarantor to those states, for the United States itself determines by its sovereign will when, where, and concerning what aggressions it will invoke the Doctrine, and by what measures, if any, it will apply a sanction. In none of these things has any other state any voice whatever.

Furthermore while the Monroe Doctrine as declared, has no relation in its terms to an aggression by any other state than a European state, yet the principle “self-preservation” which underlies the Doctrine which principle, as we shall see, is as fully operative without the Doctrine as with it—would apply to any non-American state in whatever quarter of the globe it lay, or even to an American state, if the aggressions of such state against other Latin American states were “dangerous to our peace and safety”, or were a “manifestation of an unfriendly disposition towards the United States”, or were “endangering our peace and happiness”; that is, if such aggressions challenged our existence. . . .

In this view, the Monroe Doctrine as such might be wiped out and the United States would lose nothing of its broad, international right; it would still possess, in common with every other member of the family of nations, the internationally recognized right of self-preservation, and this right would fully attach to the matters specified by the Doctrine if and whenever they threatened our existence, just as the right would attach in relation to any other act carrying a like menace. . . ." (http://byustudies.byu.edu/showTitle.aspx?title=5074

To me, this sounds like a principled and sweeping argument in favor of the rational self-interest view of foreign policy, roundly rejecting the altruist argument.