Foreign Policy

What's the Deal With Presidential Foreign Policy Doctrines Anyway?

They paper over the fact that America enjoys extraordinary latitude when choosing how to interact with the rest of the world.


We have been hearing a lot about the Trump Doctrine, lately. A week ago, for example, Reince Priebus, the White House Chief of Staff, said that "President Trump's decision to launch cruise missiles at Syria in response to a deadly chemical attack was part of a new 'Trump doctrine' governing his foreign policy." The president, Priebus continued, "is really establishing… a Trump doctrine in setting some certain lines of where we're not going to allow people like [Syrian President Bashar] Assad to go, but at the same time making it clear that we're not interested in long-term ground wars in the Middle East."

Whether Trump's foreign policy views amount to a coherent doctrine is doubtful. Let's not forget that candidate Trump railed against bombing of Syria when President Obama occupied the Oval Office. Similarly, Trump promised to declare China to be a currency manipulator on "day one" of his presidency, only to reverse himself later. Other flip-flops include Trump's attitude to Russia. The president, famously, wanted a good relationship with Putin, but soured on the Russian strongman following the U.S. bombing of Syria—Russia's ally. He also changed his view on the relevance and utility of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which he once saw as "obsolete," but now considers a "bulwark of international peace."

Of broader relevance, I think, is the existence of presidential doctrines in the first place. Since the Truman Doctrine at the start of the Cold War, America's foreign policy establishment, not to mention the rest of the world, awaits with bated breath the permutations of U.S. foreign policy each time America swears in a new Commander in Chief.

Will the United States "pay any price, bear any burden… to assure the survival and the success of liberty" (Kennedy Doctrine) or will it "look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense" (Nixon Doctrine)? Will America live with communism (détente) or roll it back (Reagan Doctrine)? Are we a country of regime-changers and nation-builders (Bush Doctrine) or do we avoid doing "stupid shit" (Obama Doctrine). One never really knows what the new guy will do, but we assume that it will be different from what the previous guy did.

This is a weird way to conduct foreign policy. Nations, typically, don't have "doctrines." They have national interests. The British national interest, sticking close to America and preventing Europe from being dominated by a single power, does not change depending on the monarch or the prime minister. The French national interest (to annoy the Americans, even if it means cozying up to Russia) does not change whether Francois Mitterrand or Jacques Chirac walks the corridors of the Élysée Palace. And the Russians will stop at nothing to keep their access to the Black Sea (Crimea) and the Mediterranean (Syria).

One possible way of explaining the changing priorities of U.S. foreign policy is that America is actually relatively secure. It dominates the Western Hemisphere, where it has no competitor, and is separated from most of the world's major hot spots by two vast oceans. Our foreign policy, in other words, is dominated less by our vital national interests and more by the whims our ruling class.

Murder of "beautiful babies," which motivated Trump's bombing in Syria, was an act of inhumanity. But going after Assad, who is fighting a war against the Islamic State savages, did not further American national interests in any meaningful way. Our presidential doctrines, in other words, paper over the fact that America, unlike any other state in modern history, enjoys extraordinary latitude when choosing how to interact with the rest of the world. That is our blessing and our curse.

NEXT: Brickbat: A Line Too Far

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  1. Baited breath?

    1. Baitin’ breath.

      1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

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      2. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

        This is what I do.,,..,,,……

  2. The Trump Doctrine was my nickname on the bridge circuit.

  3. A man who cannot even think coherently has a “doctrine” now?
    Oh this will turn out well.

    1. Well, Hillary and Obama were quite coherent, and quite good, at screwing over the American people. A ham sandwich would have been better than those guys.

  4. I stumbled upon the idea of having no government foreign policy some time ago, and at first it juts seemed weird. But the more I thought about it, the better it seemed.

    Get rid of all ambassadors, embassies, treaties. No passports. Foreigners would scramble to come up with some way for tourists and cross-border business.

    Some hikers get kidnapped by Iran for crossing (or getting too close to) their border? Their problem, not mine. Iran only kidnapped them to make brownie points at home and tweak the US’s government nose.

    Foreign governments would suddenly have to pay attention to American public opinion instead of American government opinion. Much harder to change. Needs steady reliable effort to change. Want foreign aid, ie charity? Act like you deserve it. Sure, some bozos will donate to the most repressive left or right wing governments, but most will donate where their ancestors came from or where their church recommends, and a lot of it depends on how nice they seem.

    This is entirely separate from national defense in case of attack, or allowing foreigners into the country.

    1. Want foreign aid, ie charity?

      “Foreign aid” by the US government (as well as European governments) has never been about charity; it’s mostly been about crony capitalist support for domestic interest.

  5. Trump was asked by the AP’s Julie Pace whether or not he would veto a spending bill that kept the government open but didn’t include the $1.4 billion he has requested as a sort of down payment on his much-promised border wall. Here’s how Trump answered:

    “I don’t know yet. People want the border wall. My base definitely wants the border wall, my base really wants it ? you’ve been to many of the rallies. OK, the thing they want more than anything is the wall. My base, which is a big base; I think my base is 45 percent. You know, it’s funny. The Democrats, they have a big advantage in the electoral college. Big, big, big advantage. I’ve always said the popular vote would be a lot easier than the electoral college. The electoral college ? but it’s a whole different campaign. The electoral college is very difficult for a Republican to win, and I will tell you, the people want to see it.”

    I am not making this up.

  6. To be a politician, you have to be a pompous ass. Hence, the “presidential doctrines”.

  7. Breathtaking simplifications on display here. Where to begin?

    *Doctrines are common. See China’s “Chinese Dream” under Xi or “To get rich is glorious” of Deng Xiaoping

    *The British national interest changes regularly. The monarch’s been irrelevant for so long it doesn’t warrant a mention. Though this would have been a concise analysis in the 40’s though

    * The French are far more interested in antagonizing the British than the Americans. When you’ve thousands of years of chequered history with Mexico and Canada you’ll understand more.

    *Russia be Russia. Tru dat.

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