At the most basic level, one can understand the doctrines of American foreign policy as statements of principle, designed to forestall crises or to meet them head on. The Monroe, Truman, Eisenhower, Carter, and Reagan Doctrines all sought to preempt actions deemed hostile to the United States by warning potential aggressors of American intent. They also pledged, save for the Monroe Doctrine, to support allied forces in their campaigns against predatory forces. To some extent, then, most of these doctrines carried deterrent qualities. The Hoover-Stimson Doctrine and the Nixon Doctrine stand out as exceptions: the former because it sought to compel the undoing of past actions as much as to deter future behavior, and the latter because it sought to do so many things, especially on the strategic level, with none of them targeting any specific threat.
In other ways, the story of America's foreign policy doctrines, at least during the Cold War, is the story of the United States supplanting Britain as a world power. Britain's inability to prop up pro-Western forces in Greece and Turkey precipitated Truman's request of $400 million in assistance for those two nations and a global commitment to aid others similarly imperiled. Eisenhower's pledge to aid Middle Eastern nations threatened by international communism came as a direct response to British, along with French, stumblings during the Suez crisis of 1956. Nixon's reliance on a "twin pillar" policy, while a recognition of America's limited resources, was itself brought on by Britain's withdrawal from territories east of the Suez.
And yet each of those statements exist as quintessentially, if not exclusively, American. Their content reflects the values of a nation imbued with a sense of mission to carry democratic principles around the world. Again, that sense of transcendent purpose shows up most clearly during the Cold War, yet previous statements contain elements of that creed. Nevertheless, the doctrines of American foreign policy are also clearly designed to promote the national interest. Whether they involved the creation of an Atlantic buffer between Europe and the Americas, or the defense of freedom—and free enterprise—in Europe itself, those doctrines have sought to protect American interests, be they material or nonmaterial, so that U.S. citizens could enjoy the blessings of liberty.
Those doctrines, in fact, reveal a close relationship between the missionary ideal of a more democratic world and the security ideal of a resilient America. For the most part, each presumes that the proliferation of democratic government would result in a more peaceful world and a more secure United States. Grounded in the belief that the peoples of the world are more desirous of peace than war, they posit that a government responsive to the will of the people would likewise seek pacific relations. These ideas are embedded in U.S. foreign policy doctrines from Monroe to Reagan. From the protection of democratic regimes in the Western Hemisphere, to the nonrecognition of military conquest in East Asia, to support for "freedom fighters" in the Middle East and around the world, those doctrines operated on the assumption that a more democratic world would be a safer world—and a more secure world for the United States.
At the same time, one might wonder why all presidents, especially from the middle of the twentieth century onward, did not have a doctrine of their own. Surely in an age of increasing American power, Franklin D. Roosevelt might have tapped into a legacy of past presidents and associated himself with a particular statement of purpose. Recent experience with such declarations, however, suggests at least one reason why a Roosevelt Doctrine failed to materialize. While the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary of Theodore Roosevelt were familiar concepts to Americans, the Stimson Doctrine—the latest in a growing line of policy proclamations—was hardly worthy of emulation. Moreover, previous statements of American purpose were made unilaterally; Franklin Roosevelt's grand declarations—most notably, the Atlantic Charter—were declarations of multilateral intent. Of Roosevelt's many pronouncements, therefore, the statement most likely to have merited doctrinal status might have been his 1937 pledge to "quarantine" aggressor states. Offered in response to Japanese depredations in China, Roosevelt's call for a moral embargo on predatory regimes was so vague, however, and supported with such little force, that a doctrinal statement of principle would likely have gone the way of Stimson's pledge.
The absence of a Kennedy Doctrine is also curious, though perhaps less so than at first thought. President John F. Kennedy devoted much of his energy to the Caribbean. After the Bay of Pigs debacle, however, Kennedy was loathe to commit himself publicly to the removal of the Castro regime, especially given the negative press the effort had received. Certainly it was an outcome Kennedy greatly desired, and he devoted considerable resources to its realization Yet it might have proved difficult to make so bold a statement on Cuba following his April failure. Indeed, it probably would have been ludicrous for him to have proffered a doctrine designed to rescue him from his earlier defeat. Moreover, having been roughed up by Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna summit, Kennedy was in no position to be establishing rigid guidelines governing American policy. Aside from those considerations, Kennedy, his associates, and lawmakers in Congress had all spoken of the Monroe Doctrine both before and during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, so that a Kennedy Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine would have seemed superfluous.
Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, has received scholarly credit for various statements of principle; scattered references to a Johnson Doctrine do exist in the literature. In fact, scholars have identified two such doctrines: one relating to American policy in Southeast Asia, the other relating to U.S. policy in the Caribbean. The first Johnson Doctrine invoked several principles of recent American policy, including the Munich Analogy and the Truman Doctrine. He meant it to apply, however, specifically to Indochina. As he declared on 4 August 1964, the United States would "take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia." This first Johnson Doctrine, then, was synonymous with the ensuing Tonkin Gulf Resolution; in fact, they were one and the same. Scholars nevertheless usually invoke the resolution rather than the president in their treatments of the episode.
Johnson's second statement, concerning communism in the Caribbean, mirrors the one Eisenhower made regarding the Middle East. Delivered on 2 May 1965, following the insertion of U.S. troops into the Dominican Republic, this first Johnson Doctrine pledged "the American nations" to prevent the establishment "of another communist government in the Western Hemisphere." Its wording indicated the frustration policymakers felt at having to live with one communist regime only ninety miles from the United States. While Johnson's actions in the Dominican Republic receive wide treatment in the literature, few scholars make reference to a "Johnson Doctrine" as such. Perhaps this is because of the "credibility gap" that opened up in the wake of the action. Claims that Dominican leftists were brutalizing the local populace and shooting at the U.S. embassy turned out to be false, prompting Americans to question the veracity of their president. Although the negative press Johnson received might have doomed his efforts to elevate the stature of his policy, equally rough treatment failed to prevent other grand statements, such as the one Stimson made, from rising to the level of doctrine.
In the post–Cold War era, the search for a guiding policy has proved frustrating and elusive, primarily because no international reality, such as that which followed World War II, has congealed. Nor were policymakers able to talk one into existence. President George H. W. Bush's "new world order" failed to materialize, although during the winter of 1990–1991 he was able to array a constellation of powers, the likes of which had never been seen, to resist the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Bush's successor, President William Jefferson Clinton, was no more successful in attaching his name to any grand declaration of policy. While Clinton often spoke out in support of human rights, the tardiness with which the United States and the international community addressed the horrors in Rwanda and the Balkans indicates, perhaps, a problem with making sweeping statements about such issues. Establishing a doctrinal position on the evils of ethnic cleansing, for example, a position that might commit the United States to eradicating those practices, would likely compel a president to make good on that—a position that future presidents would likely resist.
Perhaps another reason for the absence of doctrinal statements lies with the nature of the international environment near the close of the twentieth century. The end of the Cold War brought with it a diminution of public concern over a host of high profile issues, including the possibility of superpower war. Matters of "high politics," then, such as those involving the United States and Russia over the proliferation or reduction of nuclear arms, seemed less important than matters of "low politics," such as global trade and economics. While the Balkan conflict carried the seeds of a much wider war—indeed, that was part of the administration's reasoning for entering it in the first place—it never threatened the United States in ways that touched on the nation's very existence, in contrast to the superpower rivalry of the Cold War.
Still, during the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton, commentators attempted to affix doctrines to his name. None, however, seemed to have any staying power. Critics likened the Clinton Doctrine to a form of "social engineering," focusing on the president's attempts at nation building in Somalia or Haiti. Others have used the term when discussing Clinton's interest in "cooperative security" and his efforts to create an intricate web of economic interdependence. Again, only time will tell if these "doctrines" seep into the public consciousness.
Perhaps the most that can be said about the future of these grand statements of principle is that presidents will likely treat them as they have always treated them—with great amounts of discretion and latitude. Policymakers have routinely opted for liberal interpretations of these doctrines—the Monroe Doctrine being a case in point—invoking, discarding, or fudging their precepts at will. Nothing in the past offers any evidence for believing that future administrations will do otherwise.