Is There An Obama Doctrine?

Photo Credit: thefederalist.comSix days before completing his negotiations with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry told a somewhat confused assembly of Latin American diplomats that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” Greeted with (as the transcript has it) “tentative applause,” Kerry left his script to assure the audience “that’s worth applauding–that’s not a bad thing”–and accidentally to provide, as we’ll see, the best summary yet of the President’s foreign policy.

The uncertainty of Mr. Kerry’s audience should be excused, since the Monroe Doctrine as represented in his speech is wildly different from the historical original–and in all the ways we’ve come to expect from the Obama Administration. Monroe’s speech was a bold pronouncement by a still-young republic that European nations seeking to expand their empires should look elsewhere than the Americas. It was anti-colonial and explicitly reciprocal:

Our policy in regard to Europe, which was adopted at an early stage of the wars which have so long agitated that quarter of the globe, nevertheless remains the same, which is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none.

The actual Monroe Doctrine protected American independence and, by extension, the self-determination of the newly-independent South American republics. It was, in other words, the opposite of the imperialistic policy Mr. Kerry (perhaps ignorantly) repudiated and implicitly apologized for. One can never expect accuracy to get in the way when this Administration has an opportunity to score cheap political points (“that’s worth applauding”) at the expense of its always benighted predecessors.

For 190 years, American presidents had been guided by the common sense of the Monroe Doctrine: that great powers seeking colonies or client states in the Americas pose a dangerous threat to our security. Over time, they added additional “Doctrines” to the American foreign policy tradition, some better than others, summarizing essential policies or particular commitments: from Truman’s pledge to support all free peoples resisting communist subversion or conquest, to Nixon’s narrower promise to defend allies and friends from the same, to Reagan’s support for third world populations attempting to overthrow communist regimes; from Carter’s announcement that no hegemon would be tolerated in the Persian Gulf region, to Clinton’s and Bush 43’s efforts to promote democratization and freedom (respectively) at the intersection of American interests and “values.”

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