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Is There An Obama Doctrine?

Early 19th century — by Gilbert Stuart — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

The truth is that there is an Obama Doctrine, grounded in pragmatism, a philosophy both doctrinaire and ideological.

Six 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.”

Is there an Obama Doctrine? By our count, commentators have identified at least ten. Why so many? President Obama might tell us that he’s authored multiple doctrines (or perhaps no doctrine at all) because he’s not doctrinaire, in the same way he claims not to be ideological. The truth, however, is that there is an Obama Doctrine, grounded in pragmatism, a philosophy both doctrinaire and ideological. Theatrically presented, it’s a powerful force, at least among the transnational elites who populate the alphabet soup of international agencies–capable of securing a Nobel Peace Prize for nothing more than causing a (political) climate change in America and abroad.

The Obama Doctrine, it turns out, isn’t so much a policy as a posture: that the United States will applaud good things, scorn bad things, and instruct others to do the same. The Administration, of course, serves as the oracle of good and bad, occasionally requiring an intervention like Mr. Kerry’s to interpret the otherwise ambiguous signs among the entrails of its foreign policy chickens.

As the cause or catalyst of all things successful and the most forceful voice against all things wrong (no one is more angry!), President Obama is the politician that progressive pragmatists have been waiting for. He has given life to their vision like no other politician in the last century by convincing most American intellectual elites (and many in the American electorate) that an idea or policy is not measured by how it actually works, but by whether he says it has worked, is working, or will work: that the imagining of a thing is the same thing as its factual existence (in other words, hope is the same as change). This is what pragmatism unhinged from empirics looks and sounds like–a predictable outcome given that it was separated at birth from metaphysical absolutes for similar political reasons.

Syria, Obamacare, and now Iran make the limits to this approach increasingly obvious, but they’ve been hidden in plain sight all along. It turns out that saying you will lower the oceans and heal the planet is not the same thing as doing it–nor can one simply talk a new international order into being or lecture the flaws out of human nature.

When perplexed by political problems beyond their understanding, the founders took a different approach. James Madison spent much of the year leading up to the Constitutional Convention in a careful study of confederacies–ancient, medieval, and modern.

Why? Because, as he and Hamilton put it in Federalist 18, “experience is the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal they ought to be conclusive and sacred.”

Having found that earlier confederacies were alternately held together by superstition, force, or necessity, they concluded that “a sovereignty over sovereigns . . . as it is a solecism in theory, so in practice it is subversive of the order and ends of civil polity. . .” A course correction, the framing of the Federal Constitution, was necessary if the United States were not to suffer the same fate of others who had trusted in this imperfect model of governance.

The original pragmatist, Nicolo Machiavelli, unjustly criticized ancient and Christian thinkers for conjuring imaginary republics and principalities. Ironically, his present-day successors, having rejected the example of Madison and Hamilton, have taken a true flight from reality, believing that they have morally and intellectually transcended the past. But a nuclear Iran, Arab Winter, ambitious China, neutered Europe, and awakened Russia are anything but imaginary. It will take more than cheerleading and teleprompted wizardry to navigate this world safely; as Machiavelli might have put it, the Obama Doctrine “will sooner effect [our] ruin than [our] preservation.”

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter orFacebook.

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