James Monroe had one, and so should we.
That seems to be the theory behind the rampant and premature speculation among national security wonks about what kind of new doctrine President Obama or President McCain would use to guide U.S. foreign policy. But let’s not get carried away thinking about what a McCain or Obama doctrine might be. In today’s complex world, a president doesn’t need to have a one-size-fits-all template for handling foreign affairs. In fact, the next president would be better off without one.
During the Cold War, Americans grew accustomed to presidents having big, broad doctrines to organize their thinking. Sometimes these were tailored to particular places, such as Jimmy Carter’s vow to protect U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf, by force if necessary, after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Other doctrines were more sweeping, such as Harry S. Truman’s determination to support free peoples against communist usurpers or Ronald Reagan’s pledge to assist anticommunist insurgencies worldwide. All these principles were proclaimed within the context of Washington’s overarching Cold War strategy to contain Soviet communism, famously articulated in 1947 by the legendary diplomat George F. Kennan.
Over the almost 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, foreign policy experts have all aspired to be the next Kennan. But that communal nostalgia for the supposed simplicity of the Cold War and elegance of Kennan’s containment doctrine is misplaced. A single template was one thing during the long twilight struggle against a single heavyweight rival. But since the collapse of communism, the effort to impose one grand theory on global politics has proven deeply frustrating—and foolish.
In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton was desperate to outline what he called a “theory of the case,” a simple notion to help the American people make sense of a rapidly changing world. He constantly complained to his aides about their failure to come up with anything. In speech after speech, he and his advisers tried out many slogans, including “democratic enlargement,” the “age of hope” and the “third way.” None ever took hold, and at least one Clinton speechwriter, Robert Boorstin, told us that he found the whole effort to come up with a new bumper sticker “a waste of time.”
Ultimately, the Clinton team came to embrace the view that deeds mattered more than words. During the 1999 war over Kosovo, Clinton officials rebuffed pressures from the media and the foreign policy cognoscenti to couch the conflict in terms of a new foreign policy doctrine—which senior administration aides referred to dismissively as the D-word. “We tried to establish common law rather than canon law,” then-national security adviser Sandy Berger told us. “We set out to build a new role for the U.S. in the world by experience rather than doctrine.”
The results were rather good—the United States entered the 21st century with significant global support and respect—but some conservatives argued that avoiding doctrinal vision showed indecision and weakness. When George W. Bush took office more than seven years ago, his new administration believed that Clinton’s failure to define a clear foreign policy framework had helped squander U.S. influence.
The Bush team set out to speak explicitly about doctrine, emphasizing U.S. dominance of the world system, a willingness to go it alone and an insistence that Washington was entitled to take preemptive action to fight emerging threats. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, offered Bush a historic pretext for articulating this set of ideas, which were trumpeted in the administration’s now infamous 2002 National Security Strategy. Influential commentators and historians (such as Yale’s John Lewis Gaddis) swooned, calling the Bush doctrine a major innovation in national security thinking. Many liberals were cowed, believing that opposing it would seem weak.
Today, however, the Bush doctrine is in tatters: Reeling from Iraq, abandoned even by many conservatives, the administration is adopting 11th-hour positions that are far from doctrinaire on issues including China, Iran and North Korea. The new policies are more ad hoc, embracing multilateral approaches and tailoring solutions to specific challenges—something suspiciously like the Clinton approach Bush used to sneer at.
Even the Bush doctrine’s encapsulating phrase, the “war on terror,” has lost support. Some of Washington’s closest allies reject the premise that the animating feature of world politics today is a war on radical Islam. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has banished the phrase from his lexicon, and retired and active-duty military leaders have warned that casting the fight against al-Qaeda as a war implies, wrongly, that force alone can vanquish global jihadism. Strikingly, several former top Bush officials, including former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, have joined the chorus. “I don’t think I would have called it a ‘war on terror,’ “ Rumsfeld admitted as he left the Pentagon in 2006. And Powell told us that “war on terror” is “a bad phrase. It’s a criminal problem. This is not the Soviets coming back. . . . Let’s not hyperventilate.”
No matter who is elected in November, the next president will unceremoniously jettison the Bush doctrine. (McCain is hawkish, not suicidal.) But he will be prodded by advisers and provoked by pundits to replace it with a new one. Policy wonks will destroy scores of trees, consume untold megabytes and crowd the airwaves trying to do so. Our advice to Obama and McCain: Change the channel. The last thing the American people need is another bumper sticker.
As Bush has so painfully demonstrated, the quest to define a simple, Kennan-esque concept to guide U.S. foreign policy is fruitless, overrated and even dangerous in the complex world of the 21st century. The search for the single simple rubric has helped leave the country in deep trouble.
Solving problems is more important than laying out all-encompassing ideological pronouncements. The world we live in is too diverse for anything else. The United States faces a range of difficult challenges, including Islamist extremism, a surly Russia, the rise of China and India, the quest for energy security and the fight against global warming—all while trying to make sense of globalization. No single doctrine can hope to address these myriad problems.
The person who best understood the dangers of trying to cram a teeming world into a lone phrase was the very man whom so many foreign policy thinkers have tried to emulate, the late George Kennan. During the Cold War, Kennan grew deeply frustrated by the ways in which containment was used to justify policies that he believed were ill-advised. In the early 1990s, members of the Clinton team met with Kennan in hopes that the sage of strategy could help them come up with a concept to replace the one he had coined. The old diplomat’s wise advice: Don’t try to boil things down to a bumper sticker. Instead, he said, try for a “thoughtful paragraph or two.”
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.