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Strategic Doctrines, Then and Now

In its relatively short history (two and one quarter centuries), the United States of America has gone through several phases of foreign policies, each beginning with a form of strategic “doctrine” or outline of direction.

The First: George Washington and Isolationism

The first, and probably the greatest, came from the hand of the nation’s “Father,” George Washington. In his “Farewell Address,” September 1796, the first president (with help from James Madison and Alexander Hamilton) published such an outline in a Philadelphia newspaper that charted a public, external course that was destined to last almost exactly a century and a half (or until 1947).

Washington’s advice, later adopted as “isolationism,” called upon the three million Americans then stretched in thirteen states along the Atlantic coast, to adopt a policy of strict “neutrality” against the continuous quarrels and wars of Old Europe.

Washington first stressed the unity that a sound policy required: “You have in a common sense fought and triumphed together, the independence and liberty you possess are the work of your counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings and successes.” Within a unified nation, he got to the heart of the matter, “It is our policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” With a series of questions, the Founding Father provided the explanation:

“Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”

The ultimate result saw the emergence of the American “sleeping giant” that conquered and developed a continent, fought within itself, eventually expanded into the seven seas, and managed to save the Old World from itself on two profound occasions. Within that history, the wisdom of the Farewell Address steered the “ship of state” along a consistent, if wavering, line. When it was first abandoned, 1917, it almost immediately returned, with a vengeance, into a “normalcy” that only crashed with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (1941), never to return again.

By the end of World War II, 1945, the U.S. was too big to stay alone, and Europe, conversely, too small to carry on. Between 1946 and 1947 came the “revolution” in foreign policy that at long last left the Farewell Address behind to take on the challenges of a “New World Order.”

The Second: George Kennan and Containment

The origins of this dramatic change came from the mind of an otherwise obscure Foreign Service Officer, George F. Kennan, who, in February 1946, sent a memo back home from his post in Moscow that outlined the new departure in American foreign policy. It was called “containment” and urged a new and expansive policy that would, peacefully, save Europe from itself still a third time.

The essence of containment, which lasted to 1981, was to create a kind of “wall” behind which the U.S. and Western Europe would create such a position of strength that the Soviet Union, once an ally, now an enemy, could not possibly overcome. In Kennan’s original “Long Telegram,” the brilliance of containment is crafted, wherein the “main elements”:

“must be a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expensive tendencies … by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly, shifting, geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.”

Kennan’s advice was immediately adopted by the Truman Administration and incorporated into the historic announcement of the “Truman Doctrine,” on March 12, 1947, with the President telling the world that American policy would, henceforth, support “free peoples everywhere” in their own wish for peace, independence, and liberty. Then came the Marshall Plan (June 1947) which saved western Europe from both Soviet dominance and poverty, the Berlin Blockade (1948-49) saving West Berlin from the same, and, of course, the North Atlantic Treaty (1949), which created the world order we still live under.

Containment was a huge success, for a while. In 1950, it expanded to Korea in the “forgotten” war that cost 38,000 American soldiers’ lives but made South Korea the prosperous democracy that it is today.

In that same year, a State Department Planning Committee, chaired by Paul Nitze, drafted its own “strategic doctrine,” called NSC-68, that gave the new American “worldview” a definitive identity. The heart of this historic document labeled the demise of the Soviet Union as the ultimate American design:

“…we have no choice but to demonstrate the superiority of the idea of freedom by its constructive application, and to attempt to change the world situation by means short of war in such a way as to frustrate the Kremlin’s design and hasten the decay of the Soviet system.”

The Last: Ronald Reagan and NSDD-75

In the short run, this objective would not replace containment, which went through the trials of the Vietnam War and “Détente” (1960 through 1980). The net result was a “bipolar” world with two “superpowers” and an America still trying to escape the tragic aftermath of containment’s shortcomings. With a Soviet military build-up, Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, and the failures of Jimmy Carter, the stage was set for Ronald Reagan and the ultimate fulfillment of the designs of NSC-68.

On January 17, 1983, the Reagan Administration advanced “NSDD-75,” a “national security directive” aimed at ending the Cold War, reducing the Soviet Union to a secondary position in the global hierarchy and elevating the U.S. to “sole remaining superpower.”

It did all three.

The beginnings of this historic paper laid out its results:

“ … to reverse Soviet expansionism by competing effectively on a sustained basis with the Soviet Union in all international arenas … to promote the process of change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system.”

By 1991, the Cold War was history, Gorbachev and Reagan said good-bye, Bill Clinton came in on the slogan “it’s the economy stupid,” and both he and Boris Yeltsin were pictured together, arm-in-arm as though nothing ever happened.

What Next?

Then we had foreign policies called “assertive multilateralism” and “leading from behind.” That’s nice.

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