Foreign policy doctrine season has come to the nation’s capital. In the wake of President Trump’s forcible response to Bashar al-Assad’s gas attack in Syria, observers are rushing to characterize the new approach. It may be barely 75 days into his term but already, Washington seems convinced that the outlines of a “Trump Doctrine” are emerging. By launching missiles at a Syrian air base, this thinking goes, the president has set himself on a definitive foreign policy course that can be readily discerned and described.
The problem is that no one agrees about what the Trump Doctrine is, whether it’s good or bad, or if one even exists. The administration itself should avoid trying too hard to fill in the intellectual gap. Perhaps the worst thing the president’s team could do this early in its term would be to embrace a rigid doctrine that constrains its choices in a fluid world. A Trump Doctrine, if one should ever emerge, will arise from events and choices made over a period of time. It should not be the premature product of an administration still finding its feet.
The appeal of a foreign policy doctrine is obvious. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to be counted in the history books among James Monroe, who helped preserve the Western Hemisphere as an American sphere of influence, or Harry Truman, with his support for free peoples under communist threat? These days a president might even settle for something akin to Theodore Roosevelt’s Corollary, a close-but-not-quite-doctrine addition to Monroe that justified U.S. military intervention in Latin America.
The temptation for outsiders to slap a label on the administration’s approach is just as tempting, and doing so is something of an amateur sport among foreign policy observers. After the president’s communications director reportedly stunned his colleagues by admitting, “There is no Trump Doctrine,” numerous observers were happy to oblige.
For the National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn, the Trump Doctrine that emerged post-missile strike “is based on the impulsive and hawkish and unilateral exercise of American firepower.” Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin wrote, in contrast, that the Trump Doctrine is “escalate to de-escalate,” and pointed to China and North Korea as examples of the principle in play. For the military historian Max Boot, the Trump Doctrine holds that “the United States reserves the right to use force whenever the president is upset by something he sees on TV,” while for the Washington Post the “emerging doctrine is flexibility.” And the New York Times holds that the Trump Doctrine is “don’t follow doctrine.” Very meta.
With so many striving to define Trump’s national security approach, his spokesman stepped into the breach. “The Trump Doctrine,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said from the podium, “is that America’s first. We’re going to make sure that our national interests are protected, that we do what we can to make sure that our interests both economically and national security are at the forefront. We’re not just going to become the world’s policeman running around the world, but that we have to have a clear and defined national interest wherever we act.”
Despite their differences, all the definitions share a theme—that a presidential doctrine amounts to a general statement of principles guiding the conduct of American foreign policy, something akin to a national security strategy in brief, or at least some logic that chains together disparate decisions. Historically, however, foreign policy doctrines haven’t been this at all. Far from bumper-sticker summaries of all America wishes to achieve in the world, presidential foreign policy doctrines have instead declared national intent on a specific set of issues.
The Monroe Doctrine, the most famous of all, was no articulation of generalized aspiration, but rather a warning: that Washington would view further efforts by European nations to colonize or interfere with countries in the Western Hemisphere as an act of aggression. The second-best known, the Truman Doctrine, stated the policy of the United States to support free peoples who were resisting communist pressure.
Other presidential doctrines had similarly specific intent, and applications akin to a declaratory policy. Under the Eisenhower Doctrine, countries could request American economic and military aid if they were under threat of armed aggression from another state, especially one of the communist variety. Richard Nixon’s doctrine held that American allies, rather than the United States itself, would henceforth be expected to take primary responsibility for their own defense. The thrust of his articulation was to begin the “Vietnamization” of the war in Southeast Asia.
The Carter Doctrine, issued after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, labeled any attempt by an outside force to gain control over the Persian Gulf region as an “assault on the vital interests of the United States,” to be repelled with military force if necessary. The so-called “Reagan Doctrine” was hardly that; it referred to the strategy of backing anti-communist insurgents against Moscow-backed governments. Whether Bill Clinton had his own doctrine remains a matter of debate, but perhaps the closest he came was in declaring, amid mass killings in the Balkans, “Where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.”
The Bush Doctrine held that the United States would support the spread of democratic movements and institutions across the world, with the ultimate goal of “ending tyranny in our world.” Or perhaps it was the approach of working with allies when possible but unilaterally whenever necessary. Or it might have been forcibly preempting the threats posed by rogue states and terrorists before they are unleashed against America.
Barack Obama, for his part, famously embraced the “Don’t do stupid [stuff]” mantra. At the same time, his use of unilateral force to target direct threats, and his avoidance of anything that might require an indefinite military ground presence was, well, a bit doctrinaire.
The lesson is that foreign policy doctrines emerge from world events, after concrete national security decisions, and over a span of time long enough to leave a lasting mark on American foreign policy. So it will be with the Trump Doctrine.
Or it won’t emerge at all, an outcome that would be just fine. The administration does not need a magic formulation that will somehow guide seamless choices in a complicated world. What it requires instead is an appreciation for that complexity, and greater coherence in its response to it. This means distinguishing when unpredictability is useful – ahead of a missile strike, for instance – and when it is not (as when multiple officials describe conflicting approaches to Assad’s future on the same day). It means jettisoning outworn approaches, whether from the previous administration or the campaign era, while not lurching so violently that our allies are left befuddled. And it means constancy on key issues, above all when contemplating the use of force to punish foreign transgressions.
All this involves difficult choices and wise judgment. But such is the stuff of foreign policy. It’s something that no amount of doctrine can wish away.