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What Is A Doctrine?

From Monroe to Carter, Many U.S. Presidents Had One


Updated February 10, 2013

The word "doctrine" gets tossed about a lot in foreign policy. Here is a Foreign Policy 101 look at what makes up a doctrine, and some of the most famous doctrines in U.S. foreign policy.

A Doctrine Defined

Simply, a doctrine is a set of principles or practices applied to a particular situation, region, or government. American presidents tend to set foreign policy doctrine. They may do it alone, or, more likely, with the help of advisers within their administration. National tradition -- such as U.S. support for global democracy -- may form the basis of a doctrine.

Presidents, or perhaps secretaries of state, may formally announce a doctrine, such as Harry Truman did with his well-known platform. However, journalists and historians may have to sift through administration statements, documents, and actions to define a doctrine. That is the case with the Obama Doctrine (if, indeed, such a thing exists).

Doctrines tend to become less important with time as the circumstances which necessitated them end or change. No doubt Teddy Roosevelt intended his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine to stand forever, but Ronald Reagan ignored it when Great Britain went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982. The Truman Doctrine essentially ended with the Cold War.

Below is a look at some famous and not-so-famous U.S. doctrines.

Monroe Doctrine

Without doubt, the most famous of U.S. foreign policy doctrines is the Monroe Doctrine. Monroe issued it in 1823, although his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had done most of the work on it. The doctrine declared the Western Hemisphere off-limits to any future European colonization. By that time, nationalist revolutions had essentially kicked France, Spain and Great Britain (who only retained Canada) out of the hemisphere. Monroe wanted to make sure they did not come back.

In truth, the United States in 1823 could not enforce the doctrine; its navy was not big enough. Great Britain, who also did not want European rivals grabbing land in the Western Hemisphere, tacitly back the doctrine with its own powerful navy.

Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine

While this is a doctrine itself, it's called a corollary because it followed and related to the already-established Monroe Doctrine. President Teddy Roosevelt issued the corollary in 1904 after European nations sent warships to South America in an attempt to collect debts that Venezuela owed.

Roosevelt said that, should anyone need to encourage South or Central American nations to pay their debts or stabilize their governments, the United States would do it. In effect, the Corollary made the U.S. the policeman of the Western Hemisphere. For good or ill, it showed the confidence the U.S. had gained as a world power by the end of its first full century.

Truman Doctrine

After World War II, Greece fell into a civil war in which communists attempted to take over the country. President Harry Truman requested $400 million in aid for both Greece and nearby Turkey, and he wanted Congressional backing to send American civilian and military personnel to the region. In short, Truman was voiding the traditional American period of post-war isolationism.

Truman famously said it was now "the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities and outside pressures." Truman had accepted the U.S. role as a global power.

Eisenhower Doctrine

Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidency in 1952 in the early years of the Cold War. Following the Suez Crisis of 1956, Eisenhower believed an Egyptian-led Pan-Arab movement was open to aid from the Soviet Union.

Because he did not want the U.S.S.R. to fill any power vacuum in the Middle East, Eisenhower suggested that the U.S. was willing to send money and troops to the region if needed. In January 1957 he said that he could commit U.S. troops to a region "to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations, requesting such aid against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism."

Nixon Doctrine

Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968 amid increasing anti-Vietnam War sentiment. In July 1969, Nixon issued a statement trip stopover in Guam. He said that the U.S. would continue to honor all its treaty obligations, and it would step in if any other nation threatened a U.S. ally with nuclear power. But he added that the U.S. would expect its Asian allies to begin handling their own defense.

Nixon obviously aimed the statement at Vietnam. While it was the basis of a Nixon Doctrine, it was more popularly known as "Vietnamization." It also never worked. While Nixon systematically withdrew U.S. troops from Vietnam culminating in complete removal by 1973, South Vietnam was never able to effectively defend itself against North Vietnam. That communist nation took control of South Vietnam in 1975.

Carter Doctrine

In 1979, Islamic fundamentalists toppled the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Both events caused the United States to worry about the safety of Middle East oilfields and the shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf.

In his January 1980 State of the Union address, President Jimmy Carter pledged American efforts to protect the Persian Gulf region. "Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force," he said.

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