ANDREI GROMYKO. And that was during the Cold War, a period of relatively calm American political analysis. To what extent does Gromyko’s observation seem more applicable to the first eight months of Joe Biden’s presidency. Half a dozen different versions of the Biden Doctrine had been described by foreign policy commentators even before the president gave a major foreign policy speech.
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Analyzing the president’s campaign statements, some have suggested that the alleged doctrine was a return to the pre-Trump status quo, with a warm embrace from allies and international order. Other prognosticators, focusing on Mr. Biden’s skepticism of military intervention and his party’s protectionism, predicted a more diplomatic version of Donald Trump’s scatter cannon nativism. Some stressed the president’s interest in strengthening democracy; or his rhetoric about prioritizing policies that benefit American workers. How to make sense of all this? “Biden’s Doctrine of Everything” was the verdict of an essay in Foreign Affairs.
An alternative response might be to question the usefulness, as Gromyko did, of the competitive race to codify foreign policy in this way. Spreading this skeptical view around Washington, CC, this week has been embarrassing at times; several of the foreign policy experts Lexington consulted turned out to have written at least one column of the Biden Doctrine, if not three. Yet much of what they described will not only inevitably turn out to be wrong; it’s not really a doctrine at all.
Strategy experts, a rare breed in the Washington Menagerie, are raising the bar for the word. For them, it describes a declaration of national interests so fundamental that it is likely to survive multiple administrations and events. Only three foreign policy doctrines are considered to have reached this level. The first was the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, a declaration of American primacy in the Western Hemisphere that is arguably still relevant today. The second was the Truman Doctrine, according to which America took responsibility for containing the Soviet Union. The third, less boldly articulated, was the post-Cold War belief in American hegemony that underpinned the foreign policies of the 1990s and 2000s.
This did not prevent the galloping inflation of the doctrine for many decades. Most presidents since Truman have been credited with a single doctrine, including all of the more recent ones. Although the content of the doctrines of Barack Obama and Donald Trump is still disputed. (A proponent of the so-called Trump doctrine, Michael Anton, suggests that it is summed up by a line from the Wizard of Oz: “There is no place like home.”) Most of these presidential doctrines cannot usefully be compared to the three fundamental doctrines, or even to each other.
For the most part, they represent relatively minor changes to the foreign policy status quo; or new methods to maintain it. The Eisenhower Doctrine extended containment to the Middle East; the Carter Doctrine decreed that America would use military might there if necessary. Many so-called doctrines also confuse presidential aspirations with results. Mr. Obama was above all anxious to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor. Mr. Trump’s nativism was less a guide to his foreign policy than his zeal to undo everything Mr. Obama had done. It is difficult to detect the strategic foundations that purists insist on in recent additions to the canon, such as the Bush Doctrine of Preventive War or the Clinton Doctrine, a commitment to expand the realm of democracy and human rights. .
Whether Gromyko was right to view Washington’s obsessive doctrine as an obstacle to good policy is debatable. But he clearly propagated a misleading notion of presidential power. Far from being the unfettered “chief decision-maker” that George W. Bush briefly was after 9/11, presidents tend to be almost as bound by public opinion in foreign affairs as they are at home. . So Franklin Roosevelt moved from isolationism to engagement as his majorities grew. But “of course, voters prefer not to take responsibility for their influence on foreign policy,” writes foreign policy expert Robert Kagan. “Hence the emphasis on the president.”
Another weakness of Washington’s foreign policy babbling is that, by elevating the mundane, it makes important moments in US and world affairs harder to identify. And (at the risk of contributing to the bloviating) now can be such a time.
American hegemony is over; China’s bid for supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region is inescapable. The failure of the “war on terror”, the aftershocks of which have distracted Mr. Bush’s two immediate successors, is no longer a priority. So it falls to Mr Biden, a long-standing foreign policy mess but arguably the first adult president of the post-unipolar era, to construct a heavy enough response. Containment cannot be his guide. Climate change and economic integration require much more cooperation between rival powers than during the Cold War. Meanwhile, the impetus to strengthen alliances leads Australia to arm nuclear submarines, in part as a counterweight to China. And Mr. Biden’s ability to shape public opinion is limited.
The Truman Show
Strategy experts are impressed by the intellectual and political challenge this represents. “It’s Truman level stuff,” says Andrew Krepinevich, a veteran strategist at the Pentagon and elsewhere. There is no doubt that tackling it is the administration’s priority; Senior Biden officials discuss the Chinese two-way challenge all the time. But again, lofty aspirations don’t predict positive outcomes. A Biden doctrine worthy of the name may yet emerge. This is not yet the case. ■
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Beware of False Doctrines.”