American presidents have spent decades laying out grand strategies for handling the world. They haven’t worked.
- By Nick DanforthNicholas Danforth has been a Senior Analyst in the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Program since January 2016.
President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address offers foreign-policy commentators one last chance to take a stab at defining what the Obama doctrine is — or should have been. It will also mark a new phase in the 2016 presidential campaign, with ensuing opportunities to speculate about what the Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio doctrines might look like.
Amid all the analysis, a bigger question will almost certainly escape notice: Why are we desperate for presidential doctrines in the first place? Since Harry S. Truman’s administration, almost all of them have turned out to be either disappointments or disasters. If Obama ends his second term without a doctrine to his name, we should all be grateful.
As American high school students learn, the United States’ passage from colony to global superpower was attended by one foreign-policy doctrine (James Monroe’s) and one corollary (Theodore Roosevelt’s). That changed after World War II, when the 1947 Truman Doctrine sparked a proliferation of imitators. The Cold War gave U.S. presidents a newfound interest in communicating U.S. polices and red lines to the Soviet Union, while journalists and commentators developed an interest in defining these presidential pronouncements as doctrines. Some proved more specific than others, but none of them ever proved terribly successful. If presidential doctrines eventually came to be seen as a sign of strategic wisdom, it’s only because Washington’s eventual victory over the Soviet Union gave them a gloss they didn’t earn.
In March 1947, Truman told a joint session of Congress that he believed “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.” Specifically, the president was asking Congress to fund military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey, both subjects of Soviet interest at the end of World War II.
This proved to be the early high-water mark for presidential doctrines. Soviet ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean may not have been as aggressive as U.S. policymakers feared, but Truman’s show of support nonetheless ensured that Greece and Turkey would remain firmly on America’s side for the rest of the Cold War. Indeed, when both countries joined NATO in 1952, Truman’s policy became a lasting part of Washington’s European defense architecture and its broader strategy of containment.
Ironically, for critics at the time worried about containment, Truman’s success in Europe was largely overshadowed by the fact he had supposedly “lost” China to the Communists in 1949. But if history eventually vindicated Truman and his doctrine, it has done little for all the presidential doctrines that followed.
In January 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower, taking inspiration from Truman, delivered a “special message to the Congress on the situation in the Middle East.” In this speech, coming shortly on the heels of the Suez Crisis, he offered economic and military support “to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations, requesting such aid, against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism.” Having just intervened against America’s European allies in support of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, Eisenhower was now worried about the spread of Nasser’s anti-imperial socialist Arab nationalism and, by extension, international communism in the Middle East.
In accordance with this doctrine, Eisenhower sent U.S. troops to Lebanon in 1958 to maintain the country’s pro-Western alignment. Yet this seeming victory was quickly offset that same year when a coup in Baghdad replaced the country’s pro-Western monarchy with Nasser-inspired officers. By the end of Eisenhower’s term, Syria’s merger with Egypt in the short-lived United Arab Republic, as well as the success of Nasser’s forces in Yemen, left his doctrine in a state of complete disarray.
A decade later, following a period in which U.S. foreign policy had been more focused on East Asia rather than the Middle East, Richard Nixon offered the country a doctrine with implications for both regions. “As far as the problems of military defense,” he told journalists in 1969, “the United States is going to encourage and has a right to expect that this problem will be increasingly handled by, and the responsibility for it taken by, the Asian nations themselves.” In the Persian Gulf, this entailed bolstering Iran and Saudi Arabia as twin pillars of regional stability, giving them the resources to defend U.S. interests in the area without direct U.S. intervention. In Vietnam, it entailed “Vietnamization” of the war, or the replacement of U.S. troops with South Vietnamese ones. Which is to say, the Nixon doctrine had roughly a 50 percent success rate in the Middle East and a zero percent success rate in Southeast Asia.
The loss of Iran as a U.S. ally with the Iranian revolution in turn set the stage for Jimmy Carter’s doctrine. In his 1980 State of the Union address, Carter declared: “Let our position be absolutely clear: 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.” It was a more modest doctrine and, in a technical sense, successful. Neither the Soviet Union nor any other “outside force” ever seized control of Iran. But this seems like odd grounds on which to claim success for an administration that presided over the transformation of Iran itself into a hostile power.
In 1985, Ronald Reagan used his State of the Union address to articulate a doctrine that he had already proved his commitment to, declaring, “We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives — on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua — to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.… Support for freedom fighters is self-defense.” In Afghanistan, Reagan had expanded Carter’s policy of providing support for the anti-Soviet mujahideen, and in Nicaragua he began supporting the Contras in their insurgency against the left-wing Sandinista government. Which is to say, in its two signature applications, the Reagan doctrine helped bring us the Iran-Contra scandal and 9/11.
In the ebullient period after the Cold War, Bill Clinton largely avoided association with any particular foreign policy doctrine. And George W. Bush may have had a doctrine, but in a rare moment of solidarity with Sarah Palin, most foreign-policy pundits admitted they had no idea what it was. Something about invading Iraq, certainly, and the less said about its successes the better.
The dismal history of presidential doctrines belies John Kerry’s recent suggestion that foreign policy was simpler during the Cold War. If nothing else, it was complicated enough that Washington repeatedly got it wrong, in the Middle East especially.
But what’s most striking about all of the Cold War doctrines is that the individual issues which inspired them proved to be mostly irrelevant to the fundamental goal of U.S. foreign policy at the time — defeating the Soviet Union. The setbacks they inspired may have undermined specific U.S. regional interests, but they failed to provide any significant benefit to the Soviets in the larger Cold War struggle. Egypt, like Vietnam and China, in time grew much closer to the United States than the Soviets. Iran and Afghanistan, meanwhile, have proved ongoing challenges for U.S. policymakers well after the fall of the Soviet Union. And in Nicaragua, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega returned to power in the country’s 2006 elections without anyone really seeming to care.
The enduring popularity of presidential doctrines might have something to do with the fact that Washington won the Cold War despite them. These doctrines help personalize the dry workings of foreign policy, serving as stand-ins for the mix of idealism and toughness we admire in leaders like Truman and Reagan. The canonization of both men as the foreign-policy saints of their respective parties has encouraged us to treat their doctrines simply as expressions of their resolve to win the Cold War.
Undoubtedly, the 2016 candidates will soon present their own personalized takes on foreign policy. They will all be eager to trumpet their combination of principle and resolve, with an emphasis on multilateralism or machismo according to the preferred language of their party. But when listening, we should take a lesson from the failures of Ike, Nixon, and Carter, and remember the devil is in the details. Obama’s goal of avoiding “stupid stuff” might not amount to a doctrine, but it’s still better than the alternative.
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