Some Say Obama Needs an “Obama Doctrine.” Here’s a List of All the Doctrines That Came Before Him.

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May 28 2014 7:21 PM

Is There an Obama Doctrine? Here Is a List of All the Others

President Obama stands next to Lt. General Robert Caslen before giving the commencement address at the graduation ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on May 28, 2014 in West Point, New York.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

President Obama’s foreign policy speech at West Point on Wednesday has already triggered another round of debate about whether there’s such a thing as an “Obama doctrine.” Critics say he needs one—and they usually have something more muscular in mind. Obama seems to find this line of criticism personally irritating, arguing that promoting U.S. interests through modest agreements and initiatives—hitting singles and doubles, as he puts it—is more effective than grand American projects to remake the globe. Whether you think he has one, needs one, or should just ignore the whole business, a lot of presidents—especially in the modern era—are remembered for their eponymous foreign policy doctrines. Here is a list of all of them:

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

The Monroe Doctrine: The best-known U.S. foreign policy doctrine began as a something of a throwaway line buried deep in a presidential speech. With nearly all of the countries of Latin America having recently declared independence (most of them from Spain), President James Monroe’s speech was a warning to European powers not to mess with America’s backyard. Translation: The United States is sort-of a big deal now. (It had an incredible run—so much so that late last year Secretary of State John Kerry had to make clear that the “era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”)   


The Truman Doctrine: Harry Truman’s foreign policy doctrine was the first major rhetorical shot of the Cold War. Prompted by London’s announcement that it would stop funding the Greek government in its civil war against the Greek Communist Party, Truman asked Congress to pony up $400 million. The Soviets understood then that America would fight this war with guns and greenbacks.

The Eisenhower Doctrine: Proclaimed following the 1956 Suez Crisis, President Eisenhower ramped up Truman’s containment policy. Ike included the possibility of dispatching U.S. armed forces to protect allied governments in the Middle East, and he also left wiggle room for combating communist influence, even if the Soviet Union wasn’t directly involved.

The Johnson Doctrine: President Johnson may be remembered for the Vietnam War, but the doctrine that bears his name centered on Latin America. Johnson declared that the United States would use military force to prevent, any communist revolution in the Western Hemisphere. It was the Monroe Doctrine for the Cold War era. (Also a good way to justify dispatching 22,000 U.S. troops to the Dominican Republic.) 

The Nixon Doctrine: In 1969 President Nixon announcedfirst in a press conference in Guam and then in a televised address to the U.S. public—that the United States was launching a policy of “Vietnamization,” transferring responsibility for the country’s defense to South Vietnamese forces. America would provide assistance to countries fighting communism, but those countries would have to do the fighting themselves. 

The Carter Doctrine: Following the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the 1979 oil crisis, President Carter felt like he needed a doctrine for the strategically important Persian Gulf. It warned any outside force (read: the Soviets) not to attempt to control the region. It’s fair to argue that the speech kicked off a period of intense U.S. involvement there that may only be ending after two wars in Iraq. 

The Reagan Doctrine: The Reagan Doctrine was the first major break with the idea of containment that Truman had articulated nearly four decades earlier. Rather than simply aiding noncommunist governments, Reagan upped the ante: Washington would actively assist rebels attempting to overthrow communist governments, including the Contras in Nicaragua and the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. “Support for freedom fighters is self-defense," Reagan argued. 

The Clinton Doctrine: As a post-Cold War president, Clinton faced a very different world than most presidents with self-named foreign policy doctrines. Threats came from amorphous dangers, not from another superpower. The Clinton Doctrine expanded the definition of U.S. security interests, pushing for intervention in small wars, civil conflicts, and genocides, from Somalia, to Haiti, to the Balkans.

The Bush Doctrine: Foreign policy doctrines don’t get much more muscular than the Bush Doctrine. Here President George W. Bush put the world on notice that the United States would sometimes conduct military operations pre-emptively or without the support of international bodies. In his second term, not even the Bush administration was comfortable with that approach. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 


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