01/20/2011 02:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Waiting for the Obama Doctrine, Part 1: Do Doctrines Matter?

Exactly two years ago, I stood on the icy grass of the National Mall to witness a piece of history. Many of you were there with me. There were tears, there was laughter, there was even some upset as security preparations failed to anticipate the flood of people who came to participate. But in general, a spirit of cheerful optimism reigned: we were unified, we were empowered, and we were hopeful about the future. Things were going to get better.

Two years later, it's predictable that some of that optimism would have faded. The economic mess left by the previous administration proved enduring. Many of those responsible are still millionaires, and many of their victims are still looking for work. Iran and North Korea are still belligerent, Afghanistan and Iraq are still siphoning away valuable manpower and resources, and the threat of Islamic terrorism still hangs over us all. There have been distractions, delays, and disappointments that have made the possibility of a new era for American foreign policy seem more distant than ever.

But I believe that the declaration of a transformational American doctrine under President Obama is still tenable--even necessary. We can tread water, but we won't continue to lead the world in the 21st century if we cannot state what we are committed to, and why. As we have seen, military superiority alone cannot draw others to our vision.

I began reflecting on the question of a possible "Obama Doctrine" because I was trying to understand the historical and psychological drivers behind our actions. At times, we really have demonstrated the best example of power, wisdom, and generosity; at others, we have done things so despicable and shameful that it is difficult to reconcile with the myth of being somehow "exceptional." So it led me to ask: what kind of country are we, anyway? How do we know what we stand for?

In this four-part series, I'm going to argue that doctrines do matter and that there is a reason why we need a new doctrine in American policy. But first we might ask: why have a doctrine at all?

In a July 2008 piece in the Washington Post, respected scholars Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier made a compelling case that adopting a presidential doctrine is counterproductive in the modern age. The next president would be better off without one, they argued, given the complex world of the 21st century and the dangers of a single dogmatic approach. They note that Clinton managed to preside over eight years of prosperity without a doctrine, and the efforts of the Bush administration to reverse that trend ended in disaster and disrepute. During the campaign, Obama seemed to agree, avoiding any discussion of a presidential doctrine and labeling himself the "anti-doctrinaire" candidate.

The argument is persuasive. But on reflection, I believe they are wrong.

A doctrine is more than a bumper sticker or a "one-size-fits-all" template for dealing with foreign affairs, as Chollet and Goldgeier assert. Neither is it a strategy, per se, like Kennan's strategy of "containment" during the Cold War. And despite the authors' criticism of the Bush doctrine, Bush himself demonstrated that establishing a doctrine does not prevent you from accommodating nuance or making adjustments as you grapple with complex problems. (Pakistan still stands, despite the proclamation that the U.S. will make no distinction between terrorists and the regimes that harbor them.) The purpose of a doctrine is to publicly establish a set of values and principles, along with an implied commitment to take action to defend them. It answers the question: What kind of country are we, anyway?

When President Monroe established that the United States would oppose any European effort to recolonize newly-independent states in the Western Hemisphere, he was stating that the U.S. supported the right of other peoples to self-determination and opposed the expansion of imperialism in the New World. When Franklin Roosevelt stated that the U.S. would be the "arsenal of democracy," he was communicating that we would support the Allied war effort against Germany even if domestic opinion opposed entering the war. Even the "Lincoln Doctrine"--I realize most of us wouldn't recognize it labeled as such--was a declarative statement that we would as a country become all free, or all slave.

Of course, as historians will note, all of these doctrines had self-serving and self-justifying aspects--doctrines at their best are an expression of enlightened self-interest, not charity. The famous Monroe doctrine contained heavy doses of economic and hegemonic ambition, as did (arguably) the subsequent Truman doctrine (to support indigenous peoples against Communist aggression). Both Roosevelt's "Arsenal" and the Soviet Union's "Brezhnev doctrine" (Soviet intervention in any Warsaw Pact country in danger of losing communist rule) were announced post hoc to explain and justify things they were already doing.

Regardless of whether a doctrine is moral, then, it serves a purpose: it guides and informs the practical decisions of statecraft. It gives us a framework to apply in complex situations, and establishes a priority of values. It makes a statement about our resolve and our character, and the best doctrines unify people from different political ideologies. Even where it engenders controversy, it is the right kind of controversy--it pulls people into the national debate about who we are and how we act.

In thinking about a doctrine, we are not starting from nothing. As we discuss in the next section, the President has already laid out--as a candidate--the outline for a bold new direction. It will sound familiar-- it's part of the vision we elected him on.