American Doctrines 101

Six American doctrines, six morally questionable decisions.

Infographic for the article

Here at P&P, I value education. It’s why I always strive to explain history and politics in the simplest and most unprofessional ways possible, to make the information easier to digest. Today, I want to look at six US foreign policy doctrines–why they were written, and what they set out to accomplish. Although there’s a cheat sheet above, read on for a better understanding.

And if you want to test your knowledge at the end, I made a quiz that will put your high school history teachers to shame.

Monroe Doctrine (1832)

Main idea: European colonialism is BAD and should stay out of North America.

In a nutshell, the Monroe Doctrine was a rebuke of imperialism and foreign involvement. With Latin America giving Spain and Portugal the boot in 1823, European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere began to die out. Wanting to make sure Europe got the message that they were never welcomed back, the United States declared the Monroe Doctrine; any attempt to colonize North America would be considered an act of aggression and the US would retaliate appropriately. There’s debate over whether or not Europe actually gave a shit, and some of America’s neighbors were even suspicions of its true intentions. But despite its inability to be readily enforced, the Monroe Doctrine made it clear that the US wanted to monopolize a sphere of influence.

America: Say, I don’t much like Europe.
Mexico: Me either.
America: I don’t want those power hungry bastards touching Latin America ever again.
Mexico: I can get behind that.
America: I’m the only one who gets to touch you.
Mexico: And now you’ve lost me.

Truman Doctrine (1947)

Main idea: The US pledged to aid and support countries it believed were threatened by communism.

The United States’ reorientation from an isolationist to an interventionist began in the 1940s with its entrance into WW2, and the Truman Doctrine helped complete that transformation at the start of the Cold War. When the United Kingdom would no longer provide assistance to the Greek government during the Greek Civil War, Truman saw this as an opportunity for the US to step up to the plate and support Greece’s anti-communist struggle. In his key speech, Truman said that there were two paths, democracy or communism, and that countries would have to choose which to follow. Those who made the “right” choice would enjoy support and a friendly relationship with the US.  For example, for siding with justice and freedom and all that, Greece received $400 million in assistance.

America: The world needs a leader. A democratic, Western leader who’s going to help them stand up to communist-brand authoritarianism.
United Kingdom: And that would be you?
America: Well, it’s definitely not you. You’re content to stay weak and irrelevant while communism infects and destroys everything around you? Fine. I can’t say the same. Don’t expect me to sit back and let the Soviet Union and their totalitarian madness steamroll anyone they want.
UK: Why do we have a bad feeling about this?

Johnson Doctrine (1965)

Main idea: Communism is BAD and should stay out of North America.

In 1965, the US squashed a revolt in the Dominican Republic because it feared a Cuba-style communist revolution might take root. President Johnson declared that the United States would never allow for the establishment of a communist regime in North America. In other words, because communist dictatorships threatened the security of the entire hemisphere, communist revolutions would no longer be just domestic matters and therefore required intervention by the United States. For the Dominican Republic, this meant an invasion that same year and the re-establishment of a pro-US government. This document strongly paralleled the Monroe Doctrine; just change the enemy from European colonialism to Soviet expansionism.

America: Say, I don’t much like communism.
Mexico: Me either.
America: You saw what almost happened to Dominican Republic, right? Thank God I saved him before it was too late.
Mexico: “Saved” is an interesting word for it.
America: I know you’re scared of the same thing happening to your neighbors, and I know you’re scared of becoming like Cuba, but don’t worry.
Mexico: Okay, I’m following.
America: Russia’s bloodlust knows no bounds, but I promise to personally kill any and every flame that communism tries to ignite in this hemisphere, and make damn sure that I’m the only superpower who gets to force my ideals and way of life on you.
Mexico: Deja vu.

Nixon Doctrine (1969)

Main idea: The US would continue to support allies who were fighting communist forces but lessen its direct military involvement in these conflicts.

The Nixon Doctrine came right as the United States was starting to realize that the Vietnam War might have been a bad idea. Announcing that America would continue to honor its treaties with Asian allies in times of conflict but reduce direct involvement and instead let the ally take the lead, Nixon introduced the idea of Vietnamization. (Memory trick: think “Nixon, ‘Nam.” Alliteration is fun.) This would allow the US to avoid any more years of horror by letting the Vietnamese finish their own fight. While Vietnam was a huge part of  Nixon’s strategy, at its bare bones the doctrine encouraged responsibility and burden sharing among US allies. These allies, however, were still wholly protected by America’s nuclear umbrella, which is a guarantee that the US will use its nukes to defend friends if necessary.

America: I don’t know how much longer I can do this, Vietnam. This war has given me nothing but dead Americans, angry hippies, and insomnia. In the beginning, I thought this might be another Korea, but shit, was I wrong. Now I gotta stop this before it goes full FUBAR. You’ll be okay, right?
South Vietnam: Hmm.
America: Come on, I believe in you. You’re more than capable of crushing the commies while I back out to bury my shame deep, deep into the core of the earth where it will never find me again.
South Vietnam: Alright, I will finish this war myself. I just hope nothing goes terribly wrong when you leave.
America: You’ll be fine.
[Narrator]: She was not fine.

Reagan Doctrine (1985)

Main idea: Roll back Soviet influence by supporting the removal of communist regimes around the world.

Starting in the 1980s, the United States was getting more anxious and obsessive; the USSR had steamrolled Eastern Europe, communism had poisoned a chunk of Asia, and now The Middle East and Africa were threatening to turn a dangerous shade of red. To deal with this foreign policy challenge, Reagan replaced the concept of containing communism with “rolling back” the Soviet Union’s massive global influence. His doctrine vowed support for anti-communist movements in vulnerable countries. More specifically, the US would support anti-communist insurgents around the world who were opposing Soviet dominance and/or trying to remove communists from power. Proxy wars in Afghanistan and Nicaragua were the focus of this policy.

England: You seem pensive.
America: Mind if I think out loud?
England: Usually, but have at it.
America: If I destroy Russia’s influence by wringing the red out of the Third World, I win. Cripple global communism, rip the power right from her hands, topple the evil empire. That’s it. That’s gotta be my play.
England: And how will you accomplish that?
America: Aid. Lots of aid. Funding anti-communist insurgents, supporting resistance movements, doing everything I can to make sure the commies get out and stay out. And by the way, it’s not “you.” It’s not just me, it’s us. We have to be in this together.
England: Oh, good.

Bush Doctrine (2001)

Main idea: The United States has the right to defend itself against terrorism anyway it sees fit, and any countries supporting terrorists will be treated as enemies.

After the Cold War was done and over, the United States moved on to its next great foreign policy challenge: terrorism. After 9/11, George W. Bush declared that the US had the right to protect itself against countries that aid and abet terrorist groups. The two major components of this strategy were preemptive strikes on terrorists and regime change, and two keys examples of this were 1) the invasion of Iraq over its possible possession of nuclear weapons and 2) a war in Afghanistan.  But while these two conflicts were the bane of Bush’s presidency, the doctrine more generally described the United States’ behavior in the post-9/11 world with respect to terrorism and military involvement in the Middle East. It established a strong “you’re either with us or against us” sentiment meant to encourage countries to avoid–like the plague–supporting terrorists in any way, shape, or form.

America: I don’t get it. Nobody supports my invasion of Iraq.
Australia: Well, that’s not true. You’ve got me and the rest of the family. Mostly.
America: But this isn’t like before. People didn’t question my war with Afghanistan–not in the beginning, anyway.
Australi: But it’s a bit different now, in’it? In 2001, you’d just been attacked. Today you say that Iraq has these “weapons of mass destruction.” Right, I believe that, but not everyone does.
America: Why would I lie about this?
Australia: Oh, I don’t think you would. But the others, they… they feel iffy about your motives.
America: My motives? Since that day, I’ve always had the same goal: destory terrorism. We do that by holding enablers accountable, getting to the terorists before they can get to me, and giving them an alternative to their ideology of repression and fear. This isn’t just a war, this is a battle of ideals.
Australia: That’s right, mate. That’s right.

Of course, there’s a bunch of other doctrines that didn’t get covered this time around. The Roosevelt Corollary (1904) to the Monroe Doctrine, for example, was added after the Venezuela Crisis and called for the US to take up the role of “policeman” in conflicts between Europe and Latin America. But maybe you’ll see Roosevelt and others–not all American, by the way–in a future post.

Now that you’ve made it to the end, take this quiz to test your knowledge and help you remember what you’ve learned.

Author: Allison Black

Allison is an author, nerd, and international relations major who loves bad political jokes. When she's not writing or gushing about global affairs, she's playing video games. One day she will have a Ph.D., speak Korean fluently, and command an army of chihuahuas.

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