Brian Birdnow

Last week the President of the United States delivered the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy, more commonly known as West Point. President Obama delivered a speech his aides had quietly informed the press would be a major foreign policy address. The incomplete nature of the press releases led many to speculate as to what this address would, in fact, involve. Some suggested that it would be an effort for the Administration to flesh out a solid and substantial foreign policy approach, rather than the perceived ad hoc nature of the Obama foreign policy efforts since 2009. Some of the Obama critics questioned the timing of this speech, suggesting that the Administration was attempting to deflect attention from the burgeoning VA scandal. This occurred, of course, before the new Obama follies of 2014, the Bowe Bergdahl melodrama premiered. So, concerned observers do not know what the Administration was planning to accomplish with this address. We can assume, for our purposes that the President was sincere in trying to build a coherent foreign policy. We can now herald the birth of the Obama Doctrine.

The term “Obama Doctrine” may be a case of media oversimplification, or media overhype, much like the annoying habit of applying the suffix “gate” to every political scandal, both real and imagined, since 1972. Be that as it may, we are now seeing the term “Obama Doctrine” being employed to denote a general foreign policy approach in the Age of Obama. It is unlikely that the President, cool and rational, seeing himself as the antithesis of an ideologue, would comfortably accept this term, but the pressures of his office often bend stronger men than Obama into pretzel-like contortions, when explaining policy decisions.

First of all, a little historical perspective is in order here. The term “doctrine” has often been used in American foreign policy circles, extending back to December of 1823, when President Monroe issued a statement, drafted by his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams that the policy of the USA was to maintain the independence of the newly free Latin American republics. It was an oblique warning to Spain, Portugal, Britain, France and Russia that attempts to colonize, or to re-colonize in the Americas would bring about serious complications with the USA. This message became known, obviously, as the Monroe Doctrine. Most of the further American foreign policy efforts of the next century-and-a quarter occurred without titles, specifically “Doctrine,” stamped on their foreheads.

Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.