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Zakaria’s flawed defense of Obama’s non-doctrine

In Today’s Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria has made another spirited defense of the Obama administration’s reactive, lead-from-behind approach to foreign policy. Zakaria asserts in his column that every U.S. foreign policy doctrine other than the Monroe Doctrine was formulated in the simpler bipolar context of the Cold War. Trying to construct a modern doctrine to ...

By , the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University.
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

In Today's Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria has made another spirited defense of the Obama administration's reactive, lead-from-behind approach to foreign policy. Zakaria asserts in his column that every U.S. foreign policy doctrine other than the Monroe Doctrine was formulated in the simpler bipolar context of the Cold War. Trying to construct a modern doctrine to capture the complexities of current developments like the Arab spring would be pure folly, he concludes, much better therefore for Obama to stick with his prudent strategy of restraint.

Zakaria's intellectualization of a foreign policy driven by domestic priorities ("now is the time to focus on nation-building here at home," as the President declared in a June 25 speech) has two major flaws.

The first is historical. The Monroe Doctrine was not the exception that proves the rule. There was also the Tyler Doctrine which asserted U.S. strategic pre-eminence over Hawaii and the Eastern Pacific; John Hay's Open Door, which historians consider a book-end to the Monroe Doctrine; Henry Stimson's Non-recognition Doctrine, etc.,etc.

In Today’s Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria has made another spirited defense of the Obama administration’s reactive, lead-from-behind approach to foreign policy. Zakaria asserts in his column that every U.S. foreign policy doctrine other than the Monroe Doctrine was formulated in the simpler bipolar context of the Cold War. Trying to construct a modern doctrine to capture the complexities of current developments like the Arab spring would be pure folly, he concludes, much better therefore for Obama to stick with his prudent strategy of restraint.

Zakaria’s intellectualization of a foreign policy driven by domestic priorities (“now is the time to focus on nation-building here at home,” as the President declared in a June 25 speech) has two major flaws.

The first is historical. The Monroe Doctrine was not the exception that proves the rule. There was also the Tyler Doctrine which asserted U.S. strategic pre-eminence over Hawaii and the Eastern Pacific; John Hay’s Open Door, which historians consider a book-end to the Monroe Doctrine; Henry Stimson’s Non-recognition Doctrine, etc.,etc.

The second flaw in Zakaria’s argument is more fundamental, though. There is a difference between doctrine and strategy. Doctrines articulate aspirations for strategy and are therefore arguably expendable.  Strategy is not. Small powers can go without grand strategies. Great powers cannot.  Either the United States seeks to shape the direction of key regions like the Middle East and Asia, or it perpetually reacts to the initiative of revisionist powers and forces within those regions until friends and allies lose confidence and American preeminence is undermined.    

If there is a doctrine we don’t need right now, it is the faux realism and abdication of international leadership represented in “strategic restraint.”

Michael J. Green is the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a professor at Georgetown University, and a former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @JapanChair

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