Defending the Nation, Defending Themselves: The Politics of Presidential Doctrines

This week, Obama gave the commencement address at West Point. The speech has received wide attention as the articulation, at long last, of an “Obama doctrine” of foreign policy. In the course of this discussion, it seems that many people treat presidential doctrines as purely intellectual products, derived from philosophical thoughts and isolated from politics. They’re not. They are carefully crafted political defenses. Foreign policy doctrines are reverse-engineered to address events as they arise, in ways that respond to and work with existing understandings of the nation’s security interests.

Historically, doctrines have been developed in order to respond to events or opponents or both. The Monroe Doctrine responded to the changing politics of Latin America and the nation’s longer-term concerns about relations with Great Britain. The Truman Doctrine responded not only to events in Europe, but also to the need to define and explain the situation to other decision-makers. Without the need to explain the need for stronger action to the public, and to persuade Congress to fund aid, Truman would not have needed to articulate the principles that eventually became understood as doctrine.

The Carter and Reagan Doctrines, both introduced during State of the Union messages extended the ideas of the Truman Doctrine. All three were rooted, at some level, in Cold War concerns about containment and spheres of influence. Carter, like earlier presidents, articulated a doctrine in order to respond to events in the Middle East and send a signal to the Soviet Union. Carter and Reagan’s doctrines may have to some extent reflected their distinct party identities, with Reagan’s more clearly proclaiming national commitment to aid “freedom fighters.” In this way, the Reagan doctrine fit well with the overall thrust of his political ideology, stressing freedom, strong anti-Communism, and a projection of national strength. But his statements were also defensive – Congress had already voted to prohibit aid to the Contras in Nicaragua.

Like his predecessors, Obama’s doctrine responds to a number of immediate political pressures, as well as longer-term commitments to certain ideas about foreign policy like freedom, democratization, and the prevention of terrorism. The American public appears to have turned against wars and foreign interventions. In 2008, Obama ran on promises to bring troops back from Iraq and to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility. These pledges proved valuable in differentiating himself from Bush and for winning over voters who held anti-war views. Turning those promises into reality has, on the other hand, been much more difficult. The tumultuous politics of the Arab Spring have added to the confusion about what the Obama administration should do and about which principles guided its actions.

Defining the national interest in the context of deep and wide polarization adds an additional challenge. Obama’s choices and tactics have been criticized for being too unilateral and heavy handed (by some on the right and some on the left). He’s also been criticized by opponents for taking too long to make decisions, and for “apology” for America. Obama is in a particularly defensive position, contending with the “weakness” problem that plagues many Democratic presidents and the difficulties in keeping promises to his own supporters. On top of that, we have the Vietnam-era legacy of linkages between opposition to war and willingness to question the basic tenets of American culture. This intersections in an especially potent way with Obama’s multicultural biography, bringing foreign policy into a broader debate about what it means to be American in the twenty-first century.

Presidential foreign policy doctrines, like much of presidential rhetoric, have a defensive and explanatory component. Foreign policy doctrines, in particular, serve to defend actions already underway or to persuade others to support new plans. Presidents articulate their foreign policy ideas in response to immediate political concerns, and their broader doctrinal significance becomes apparent years later. Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer said that Obama’s speech was defensive and thus “literally pointless.” But for Obama, as for other presidents, defending policy is the point.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.