Daniel W. Drezner

Let’s define our foreign policy terms, shall we?

Let’s define our foreign policy terms, shall we?

After last night’s speech on Libya, there’s been an orgy of online discourse about whether there is now an Obama Doctrine or not.  All of which is making me feel very, very guilty. 

See, back in early 2009, I wrote one of the earlier posts about whether there was an Obama Doctrine or not.  Glenn Thrush quoted that post in Politico last week, which led to a lot of media inquiries on the matter.   Regardless of what I say on the subject, the topic du jour appears to be whether there is now an Obama Doctrine and how it holds up as a grand strategy.

I don’t have the time today to write up my substantive thoughts on the matter, but I do think it would be useful to at least define the terms properly. 

First, on the Obama Doctrine — unfortunately, foreign policy discourse being what it is, that "XXX Doctrine" has devolved into a meaningless catchphrase coined by news outlets the first time that an administration initiates military or quasi-military force.*  Whenever that happens, the news networks go into paroxysms of speculation about whether such action signals a new doctrine.  Based on Obama’s speech last night, it seems pretty clear that the answer to that question on Libya is a clear "no," so I don’t think we need to go there. 

Second, even if Libya did lead to an Obama Doctrine, that doesn’t equate to a grand strategy.  The Reagan Doctrine, for example, had actual policy content — it meant the arming and aiding of anti-communist guerillas in peripheral communist countries like Nicaragua or Afghanistan.  Not even the fiercest Reagan acolyte would agree that the Reagan Doctrine was America’s grand strategy during the 1980’s.  It was rather a policy that was part of the larger strategy of containing Soviet communism. 

Obama did not clearly articulate a grand strategy last night (and just as well, since his delivery was pretty weak).  He has tried to do so in his previous speeches and strategy documents, with variable results.  Far more important that what is said at the beginning of an administration is how Big Decisions are articulated ex post.

In that sense, Dan Nexon is right to say that Obama shouldn’t have articulated a grand strategy out of what was clearly an exceptional decision due to exceptional circumstances.  That said, if I were Obama’s foreign policy team, I’d start thinking very hard about a speech without the phrase "false choice" in it that clearly prioritizes American interests and values.  Because unless the president defines his grand strategy, pundits will be more than happy to define it — badly — for him. 

*Clear exceptions include those doctrines clearly articulated or embraced by Monroe, Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Nixon, and Reagan.