In this morning’s Washington Post, Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier deliver a sustained case for the next president’s not having a “doctrine” of his own. “Solving problems is more important than laying out all-encompassing ideological pronouncements,” they declare; “the world we live in is too diverse for anything else.”

I have no quarrel with their basic suggestion that attempting to force the world into an ideological straightjacket is almost certainly counterproductive (crusaders’ protests about making history rather than living in the “reality-based community” to the contrary). This sensibility about the (perhaps tragic) limits of human social action is common to all varieties of realism, ranging from the materialist to the constructionist, and I’m in print as a “realist constructivist.” So I don’t mind the recommendation — but I do mind the chain of logic that gets them there.

Consider one of Chollet and Goldgeier’s empirical claims: everything articulated in American foreign policy during the Cold War was fundamentally similar. “All these principles” — and in this paragraph they mention Carter, Truman, and Reagan in quick succession — “were proclaimed within the context of Washington’s overarching Cold War strategy to contain Soviet communism, famously articulated in 1947 by the legendary diplomat George F. Kennan.” Truman, I buy. Carter? Well, in this case (they’re referring to Carter’s vow to protect US interests in the Persian Gulf) I can see it. Reagan? No way.

Reagan’s whole foreign-policy orientation was pretty much the antithesis of containment, since it was in no way content with letting the Soviets live in their own space but was instead concerned with actively and directly trying to undermine Communist regimes. Containment was essentially a defensive doctrine, premised on a principle of fundamental and irreconcilable difference which gave a certain kind of legitimacy to the Soviet empire (even if, as Kennan himself said back in 1947, the Soviet Union would eventually fall apart of its own accord, in the meantime it did no good trying to wish it away or actively force it to disappear). The proto-neoconservative Reagan Doctrine, on the other hand, was an offensive doctrine, premised on the fundamental illegitimacy of Communism in general and the Soviet Union in particular. This is either the funniest use of the phrase “within the context of” I’ve ever seen, or it’s something more profound.

I think it’s the latter. In fact, I think it signals a rather fundamental misapprehension of the role of “doctrines” on Chollet and Goldgeier’s part. The authors seem to assume that the only way that a doctrine could be judged effective would be if every policy — and even more, every effect of every policy — happened in accordance with it. They critique the “Bush doctrine” by noting that there are prominent dissenters, and by pointing out that some of the Administrations present policies are somewhat multilateral in form. But this was true of “containment,” too! Have we forgotten Douglas MacArthur, “rollback,” the entire club of used-to-be-Stalinists-but-then-became-hawkish-anti-Soviet-types whose descendants (and sometimes they themselves!) grew up to become neocons? We overplay the consensus of the putative “Cold War Consensus.” There was always dissent, some of it quite public. And Cold War policies didn’t always look like Cold War doctrine, either; the US supported coups, brought down elected leftist governments, and so on. Whatever else doctrine is and does, it is not a simply-implementable, self-executing recipe book for foreign policy.

Instead, a doctrine is a rhetorical commonplace, a widely-shared and vague notion on which speakers can draw when attempting to justify courses of action. A foreign-policy doctrine doesn’t tell you what to do as much as it makes particular courses of action possible — and makes others more difficult, if not impossible. So saying that there’s a “containment doctrine” dominant at some point in time means that actually-existing policies have to make reference to containment in the course of achieving sufficient public acceptability to be implemented. (Note that “public” here doesn’t have to be the voting public; the mechanism of legitimation is scaleable, and it’s an empirical question who constitutes the relevant “public” for a given course of action.) This neither guarantees that all policies or everything that the state does have to conform to some particular notion of “containment,” nor does it actually specify precisely what “containment” means; such specification emerges transactionally, in the course of policy debates, and often happens precisely in the course of trying to decide, collectively, whether some policy is or is not an instance of “containment” (or whatever the dominant doctrine happens to be). It’s only after the fact that we can decide whether some course of action was or wasn’t consistent with the doctrine, and unless we’re willing to follow the historical determinations of the actors themselves we’re likely to find ourselves slipping out of detached analysis and into re-fighting old political battles.

But I digress. The point is that foreign-policy doctrines aren’t self-executing, and we should be as little surprised that there is dissent from them and that not all courses of action appear at first glance to conform to them as we should be surprised that people driving in a 65-MPH zone on a highway don’t always go 65 MPH. The relationship between doctrine and action is much more subtle than Chollet and Goldgeier make it out to be. And it’s precisely because they miss this subtlety that they miss the really significant change in US foreign-policy doctrine signaled by Carter’s more universalist-moralist tone and Reagan’s aggressive efforts to undermine Communism: containment went out, and was replaced by militant exceptionalism. The “Bush doctrine” is nothing new; it’s just a reconsolidation and updating of this turn in US foreign-policy orientation. What such doctrinal change does is it alters the conditions of possibility for policy, which can be easily seen from the fact that Reagan and especially GWBush could do and did things that “containment” presidents couldn’t and didn’t, like unilaterally launch a full-scale invasion of Iraq.

So I’d say this: don’t be misled by the fact that the “Bush doctrine” isn’t being completely and faithfully implemented. The basic commonplace — militant American exceptionalism, generally articulated against Islamic terrorism — is still quite dominant. In the same section of this morning’s Post, Glenn Carle starts off an op-ed by noting that “Sen. John McCain has repeatedly characterized the threat of ‘radical Islamic extremism’ as ‘the absolute gravest threat . . . that we’re in against.'” Although Carle goes on to suggest that this is not true, the fact remains that the claim is a staple of McCain’s campaign, and Obama has said similar things. The same contrast is drawn: on one side, the forces of darkness (Islamic terrorism); on the other, the forces of light (the US and everyone who sides with us in particular controversies/conflicts). Militant exceptionalism to the core. This is not the Cold War doctrine, and this is not some idealized liberalism where everyone co-operates for the common good. It’s an almost manichean view of the universe, underpinned by the notion that the United States is ontologically distinct from every other polity on the planet. And I don’t see any sign that this notion is going away anytime soon, which raises some difficulties for the idea that the next president will in any sense be able to abandon doctrine in favor of less ideological.

But — and this is the really important thing that Chollet and Goldgeier miss — I’m not sure that this is the real problem. Indeed, I cannot quite imagine a doctrine-less foreign policy, because even “taking cases on their individual merits” is a doctrine. Doctrine in the sense I have been using it here is not a straightjacket; it’s a cultural resource. Not all resources are created equal, and not all resources lend themselves equally well to all possible courses of action. Militant exceptionalism may be a problem, but not simply because it’s a doctrine — it’s a problem because it encourages counterproductive courses of action, and because it’s immoral (and come on, be honest: when push comes to shove, if you’re not a fan of militant exceptionalism, at root it’s a moral objection, a sense that we just shouldn’t be doing these things or that we just shouldn’t be that kind of a country — just admit it and stop trying to pretend that your objections are purely derived from means-ends calculations, and we’ll all feel better). And the solution is to replace that doctrine with a more acceptable one — and that means a new or re-engineered commonplace or set of commonplaces.

What we need is not some fanciful doctrine-less world, where everyone treats every case purely “on its merits” (whatever that actually means in practice, because one always needs a theoretical perspective or sensibility, whether explicit or tacit, from which to ascertain the “merits” of a case . . . and that perspective undoubtedly contains just the sort of commonplace notions standing in need of specification that are characteristic of an officially-proclaimed foreign-policy doctrine). What we need is better doctrine.

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