What is a Presidential Doctrine?

Over the past eight years many articles were written with some variation of “The Obama Doctrine” in the title. Few writers offered a definition for the term “presidential doctrine,” but writers and analysts treated it as if it can be applied to anything relating to foreign policy. Historically, however, a presidential doctrine has served to define the national interest of a specific administration in a public manner, informing the American people and their allies, as well as putting potential adversaries on notice. Presidential doctrines did not define a specific strategy a president would pursue, their administration's worldview, or how they would utilize American power. Instead, beginning with the Monroe Doctrine, it was a statement of purpose; a strategic end state to be achieved.

The Monroe Doctrine signaled to European powers that the United States would not accept meddling in the affairs of American states, and the doctrine of Theodore Roosevelt added the prerogative to act militarily in the same area. The Eisenhower and Carter doctrines both focused on Soviet involvement in the Middle East, and under Carter specifically, the Persian Gulf. Alternatively, the Truman, Nixon, and Reagan doctrines were global in focus. Truman pledged to contain Communism and Reagan promised support to anti-communist guerrillas. Nixon’s doctrine put the onus on our allies while extending our nuclear shield over them. The George W. Bush doctrine supported the spread of democracy—especially in the Middle East.

Political cartoon (circa 1906) depicting Theodore Roosevelt using the Monroe Doctrine to keep European powers out of the Dominican Republic. (MonroeDoctrine.net)

When reviewing each of these doctrines, one can find one specific commonality, as they each articulate a specific purpose of policy, for example: protection of the western hemisphere from foreign incursion (Monroe Doctrine), support to insurgents against communism to roll back Soviet gains (Reagan Doctrine), or the prevention of any power from dominating the Persian Gulf (Carter Doctrine). These are more than mere policy pronouncements or simple rhetoric—they are statements of defined strategic interests in given regions, or towards growing threats and how they may be resolved. They describe the outcomes, or in strategic parlance, the end state. They are not worldviews, leadership styles, or reasons given to justify an intervention on which most articles about the Obama Doctrine focused.

Multilateralism or engagement were the favored words of policy writers throughout Obama’s presidency. Analysts and writers loved Obama’s move away from his predecessor’s unilateralism and aversion to talking with rivals. But multilateralism and engagement are policy tools, not outcomes or defined national interests. It may behoove policy practitioners to utilize such tools, but their use in and of themselves does not make presidential doctrine. Retrenchment was another often-cited doctrine, but it is still not a doctrine; it is a strategy. Another favorite pastime of foreign policy writers was to label Obama a realist, idealist, or combination. Those are ideologies or theoretical approaches to foreign policy, not doctrines.

In 2011, after the Arab Spring roiled the Middle East and Obama joined with America’s NATO allies in intervening in Libya, “leading from behind” became the preferred doctrine by year’s end. Despite Charles Krauthammer’s article in the Washington Post clearly stating this to be a leadership style and not a doctrine, this one has persisted into 2017. A more accurate choice for ascribing a presidential doctrine for the Obama Administration was their rationale for the intervention in the first place: justifying the use of force where interests and values are threatened, not just when the U.S. itself is directly threatened. Although much closer to a doctrinal statement than “leading from behind,” this too lacks the desired end state needed to qualify as a doctrine.

President Barak Obama (Ruven Afanador/The Atlantic)

Finally, Jeffery Goldberg’s long article in The Atlantic, “The Obama Doctrine,” also took a stab at defining a presidential doctrine for our most recent administration. Although the article is an incredible journey into President Obama’s worldview and should be read by any serious student of the administration, it fails to articulate a presidential doctrine; it does not explain a desired end state akin to the aforementioned Monroe, Carter, or Bush doctrines.

One of the few articles that accurately ascribed presidential doctrine was one by Hugh White in the Wall Street Journal in 2011. In it he suggested the Obama administration's position was that, “The U.S. will resist China’s challenge to its primacy in Asia.” In some ways it is a weak statement—it lacks the strength in wording of the Eisenhower and Carter doctrines—but its sentiment is the same. This is a doctrinal statement. Is it an Obama Doctrine? Time will tell.

In the meantime, writers are gearing up to repeat the same process for President Trump. During the 2016 campaign, there were attempts to decipher a Trump Doctrine from the rhetoric. This is hardly worth discussing as campaign speeches rarely align neatly with policy. However, we have already had several attempts to define a Trump Doctrine since the election. Alexander Mitchell labeled it “America First,” but the article fails to explain what such a doctrine was meant to accomplish or, as explained above, articulate an end state. Pat Buchanan wrote one for Town Hall, but his was light on analysis and focused more on criticizing neoconservative foreign policy. Reva Goujon of Strategic Forecasting wrote another, but focused on Trump’s worldview in a manner similar to Goldberg’s treatment of Obama. None have accurately described a presidential doctrine. Nor could they, given a presidential doctrine is not built in 100 days.

President Donald Trump (Mario Tama/Getty Images/The New Yorker)

Words and concepts matter. A strategy is different from a worldview, and ideologies are different from both. As writers continue to analyze the actions of the Trump administration, especially after major events like the cruise missile strike of Shayrat Airfield in Syria in early April, it should be kept in mind that the term “presidential doctrine” has a specific meaning and purpose. When the president articulates an objective, goal, or end state desired, then and only then has he articulated a doctrine.

Rexford Barton is an analyst with the Air National Guard. His master’s thesis from Tel Aviv University is titled, “The Debate Over Obama’s Middle East Strategy from 2009-2015.” The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Air National Guard, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image:   Then President of the United States of America, George W. Bush invited then President-Elect Barack Obama and former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter for a Meeting and Lunch at The White House. (Joyce Boghosian/White House Photo)