America’s foreign policy has been adrift since 2003, clinging to outdated doctrines. This has rendered America utterly unprepared for twenty-first-century threats, primarily the rise of China.
The United States has gone twenty years without a new presidential doctrine being espoused. While such doctrines—declarations of key foreign policy strategies—are rarely directly declared by a given president, most have been fairly evident to outside observers, as they often represent major shifts in American foreign policy thinking. Generally, doctrines have defined either a single key policy decision a president makes—such as the Carter Doctrine, which declared that the United States would defend the Persian Gulf—or have acted as broad-based prisms through which all foreign policy decisions are made—such as the Nixon Doctrine, which determined the circumstances in which America would aid countries threatened by communism.
Presidential doctrines are not the end-all-be-all of U.S. foreign policy, but they are useful indicators of where America’s metaphorical head is at, especially since they oftentimes cut across ideological lines and are rarely disavowed by succeeding presidents after being declared. As such, when and why different doctrines have been declared have told the story of America’s foreign policy history—as has a lack of declarations.
When the Monroe Doctrine was first declared in the 1820s, announcing to Europe that the Americas were off-limits, no further doctrines were announced for 100 years because none were necessary. But since America became more active abroad in the twentieth century, doctrines have become commonplace: starting with Harry Truman, almost every U.S. president made one. But this nearly unbroken chain ended with George W. Bush. Since the Bush Doctrine, which equated terrorist-financing states with terrorists and approved of preventative war, pre-emptive war, and democracy promotion, no president has announced their own foreign policy doctrine. All three of his successors—Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden—explicitly ran against the Bush Doctrine, but all were ultimately unable to expunge it as none had a clear idea of how to replace it. Obama seemed constantly uncertain and was unable to articulate an Obama Doctrine in an interview for The Atlantic conducted at the end of his administration. The Trump administration, governing during a period of ideological realignment in the GOP, was split between interventionists like John Bolton and Elliot Abrams and the ascendant, internationalism-skeptical national conservatives; as a result, it never settled on a singular Trump Doctrine. At present, the Biden administration also seems uncertain as to what it wants, talking tough on China but declaring them only a competitor, while at the same time trying to be friendly with European states but targeting them with protectionist policies. Biden has talked of seeing the twenty-first century as a war between autocracy and democracy, which could eventually become a Biden Doctrine of sorts, but that view is beset with problems and, in many ways, is just the Bush Doctrine with “terrorism” swapped out for “autocracy.”