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“Doctrinaire” Foreign Policies

Throughout history, nations have chosen to label their important policy objectives as “doctrinal” in scope, as though these were religious rather than merely secular in nature. A “doctrine,” is, after all, a matter of faith and morals, not just a temporal reaction to some country’s misdemeanors. In foreign policy, doctrinal status, like the Truman Doctrine beginning containment, or the Monroe Doctrine protecting Latin America from European encroachments, is revered and reflects high level interests.

A doctrine elevates state behavior to a much higher level, to an area where geopolitical strategy reaches untouchable limits, not to be crossed by either friend or foe. One is reminded of the symbolic flag of the American Revolution, a rattlesnake ready to strike. “Don’t Tread On Me” was not technically a doctrine, but it had the same force: here, but no further!

Why do statesmen want to proclaim doctrines? Perhaps the greatest doctrine, Monroe in 1823, was not even given doctrinal status until much later and was twisted beyond all recognition by his successors. Not only was the U.S. unable to enforce the Monroe Doctrine as the British Navy patrolled the south Atlantic, but the basic idea was converted from a defensive shield against European occupations in Latin America to an offensive sword. President James Polk reversed the original concept to a justification for American expansion in the 1840s, perhaps a good policy, but not because of James Monroe.

Polk, actually one of history’s more successful leaders, invoked the doctrine to annex Texas, New Mexico, California, and Oregon into the greater U.S. His bold use of the idea was expanded in 1902 by Theodore Roosevelt with a “corollary” allowing for American intervention in Latin America against “chronic wrongdoing.” The result was twenty-five American interventions in the region, finally stopped by Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” Policy in the 1930s. Thus, doctrines can be both passive and active, depending upon circumstances and power.

Doctrines are customary in world statecraft, but not always with the same name. George Washington’s Farewell Address urged a U.S. neutrality toward Europe, which largely held for 150 years, but was never called a “doctrine.” The 1899-1900 “Open Door” notes sent by the U.S. to protect China against further interventions was largely ignored, but remained steadfast as U.S. policy for generations, finally producing a frustrated Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. But these notes were never given doctrinal status.

Doctrines are similar to the Shakespeare expression, “what’s in a name.” How serious is a country when it announces a doctrine?  Over time, there have been many, but most U.S. political administrations have survived without a single one.  

Let’s survey the landscape. For the U.S. alone, the following doctrines have existed: Monroe, Tyler, Stimson, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Kirkpatrick, Weinberger, Reagan, Powell, Clinton, Bush, and Rumsfeld.

Aside from professional historians, there are few Americans who can recall the specifics of these. Except for the first, Monroe, most have left historical connections behind but, at the time, they at least had momentary interest. The “Bush Doctrine,” which is what the press called it, is probably still in force but only sporadically.

Doctrines do not necessarily need enforcement. A doctrine by itself is a statement of purpose and no more. Enforcement is an entirely different matter and is not even required. The Monroe Doctrine was enforced by the British Navy. Secretary of State Stimson’s doctrine condemned Japan in 1931 for taking Manchuria. Japan kept Manchuria until it lost the war.    

Nor are doctrines confined to the United States. Other countries have announced their own, including Argentina (Calvo), Mexico (Estrada), and Britain (Palmerston). Perhaps the most important and most recent was the Brezhnev Doctrine, justifying Soviet interventions into Eastern Europe. Announced in 1968, it justified Soviet armed takeover of Czechoslovakia, but was forgotten after his death and the collapse of Soviet rule by 1989.

America’s Monroe Doctrine was probably the longest standing in history, lasting 190 years if we are to believe Secretary of State John Kerry. On April 18, 2013, Kerry told an Organization of American States meeting that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” According to one account, the point received “tepid applause,” prompting Secretary Kerry to reply that it was “worth applauding.” Many felt that Kerry was apologizing for history. Still, the news received little play in the U.S. media but much more in Latin America, where many papers mistook Kerry’s word “era” for “error,” reporting that, apparently, the U.S. was making its confession. They were probably right.

This point reflects the relatively new U.S. geopolitical role in the world. At one time, and even right up to Pearl Harbor and world war, Latin America was the most critical arena for the U.S. No longer. The new foreign policies, termed the Bush and Rumsfeld “Doctrines” by the press, are post-9/11 phenomena and were aimed against the “axis of evil,” namely states that “harbored” terrorists.

Should these doctrines go on for 190 years, we may want to re-examine our strategies.