The Monroe+ Doctrine: A 21st Century Update for America’s Most Enduring Presidential Doctrine

The Monroe+ Doctrine: A 21st Century Update for America’s Most Enduring Presidential Doctrine

America’s foreign policy has been adrift since 2003, clinging to outdated doctrines. It is time to change that.

The United States has gone twenty years without a new presidential doctrine being espoused. While such doctrines—declarations of key foreign policy strategies—are rarely directly declared by a given president, most have been fairly evident to outside observers, as they often represent major shifts in American foreign policy thinking. Generally, doctrines have defined either a single key policy decision a president makes—such as the Carter Doctrine, which declared that the United States would defend the Persian Gulf—or have acted as broad-based prisms through which all foreign policy decisions are made—such as the Nixon Doctrine, which determined the circumstances in which America would aid countries threatened by communism.

Presidential doctrines are not the end-all-be-all of U.S. foreign policy, but they are useful indicators of where America’s metaphorical head is at, especially since they oftentimes cut across ideological lines and are rarely disavowed by succeeding presidents after being declared. As such, when and why different doctrines have been declared have told the story of America’s foreign policy history—as has a lack of declarations.

When the Monroe Doctrine was first declared in the 1820s, announcing to Europe that the Americas were off-limits, no further doctrines were announced for 100 years because none were necessary. But since America became more active abroad in the twentieth century, doctrines have become commonplace: starting with Harry Truman, almost every U.S. president made one. But this nearly unbroken chain ended with George W. Bush. Since the Bush Doctrine, which equated terrorist-financing states with terrorists and approved of preventative war, pre-emptive war, and democracy promotion, no president has announced their own foreign policy doctrine. All three of his successors—Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden—explicitly ran against the Bush Doctrine, but all were ultimately unable to expunge it as none had a clear idea of how to replace it. Obama seemed constantly uncertain and was unable to articulate an Obama Doctrine in an interview for The Atlantic conducted at the end of his administration. The Trump administration, governing during a period of ideological realignment in the GOP, was split between interventionists like John Bolton and Elliot Abrams and the ascendant, internationalism-skeptical national conservatives; as a result, it never settled on a singular Trump Doctrine. At present, the Biden administration also seems uncertain as to what it wants, talking tough on China but declaring them only a competitor, while at the same time trying to be friendly with European states but targeting them with protectionist policies. Biden has talked of seeing the twenty-first century as a war between autocracy and democracy, which could eventually become a Biden Doctrine of sorts, but that view is beset with problems and, in many ways, is just the Bush Doctrine with “terrorism” swapped out for “autocracy.”

The Needs of a New Doctrine

Essentially, America’s foreign policy has been adrift since 2003, clinging to outdated doctrines. This has rendered America utterly unprepared for twenty-first-century threats, primarily the rise of China. But with the 2024 presidential now election beginning in earnest, and Biden acting as a self-declared “transitional” president, presidential candidates on both sides have a unique opportunity to rejuvenate America’s foreign policy with a new doctrine.

Any new doctrine must take a few matters into account. First and foremost, it must redirect attention to America’s national interest. During the Cold War, when the nation needed to be defended against an ideology that could jump borders without a shot fired, an ideologically driven foreign policy framework was more appropriate. But the “ideological” threat that Biden has identified, autocracy, is not a transferrable ideology like Soviet communism was. Nor is Chinese communism, which is in some ways being supplanted with Chinese nationalism—and is likewise non-transferrable.

Second, a new American foreign policy doctrine should also utilize old and existing alliances while reorienting them into being tools of America’s national interest—national interests should not be contorted to serve old alliances, as some would argue is currently happening. While the United States should seriously start focusing more on East Asia, should America totally renege on its treaty commitments and abandon its allies it will likely become impossible to create any meaningful ant-China coalition. Europe, already skeptical of angering China, would at best likely turn neutral, and America abandoning its European allies would guarantee that no smaller East Asian states would trust the word of the United States. The result could be Eurasia falling under China’s thumb (via a Sino-Russian bloc)—a shadow that would ultimately cross the oceans. America would be left attempting to play whack-a-mole with pro-Chinese South American governments.

Third, a new doctrine must be transferrable from administration to administration and be politically tenable to American voters. To win the twenty-first century, America cannot have a foreign policy that vacillates every four to eight years—it must be designed with the long term in mind. Doctrines that have been the most effective at staying relevant have been tied to geographic areas, not to a particular enemy leader or nation (the Truman Doctrine, which called for U.S. support of democracies under threat from communism, was for example clearly targeted at Greece and Turkey—but could be easily extended to include other states).

Finally, any new doctrine must be politically tenable on a domestic level. While presidential elections are rarely won on foreign policy issues, they can be lost on them. Americans will not want to become too withdrawn; the paleoconservative dream of pulling back entirely has never been a majority position. But a policy of going abroad in search of monsters to destroy will certainly wear out its welcome, especially—as we have seen—after two decades of protracted and bloody conflicts.


Merging the two American inclinations—toward pulling back and throwing itself forward—in one doctrine will be a difficult needle to thread. But it can be done by taking into consideration all that America has learned since it came out of its shell, while also going back to its first, and most enduring, presidential doctrine: the Monroe Doctrine.

Call the new doctrine Monroe+. While adding “plus” to well-known brands is currently in vogue in twenty-first-century parlance, it also connotates a further metaphorical and physical meaning. Metaphorically, it takes the original Monroe Doctrine and adds to it, à la Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary. Physically, it represents the geographic focus of the new doctrine; the “plus” addition is simple to understand and can be drawn on a map. When drawn over the Americas, it goes down to South America and across to the tips of Eurasia: Europe and East Asia. The United States should endeavor to keep these marked areas free of governmental anti-Americanism.

The Monroe Doctrine called for the rest of the world to stay out of Central and South American affairs. That is currently under threat, with China increasing its influence in South America. The original doctrine would therefore be a key part of Monroe+. Likewise, the ends of Eurasia staying free of being subsumed by an anti-American bloc—at the moment the most likely candidate being the Sino-Russian bloc, though that can change as time goes on—makes it less likely that America will eventually face a Eurasia united against it, a scenario which has long been the nightmare of American strategic planners.

This doctrine—clear, simple, wedded to national interest while allowing for an idealistic coating—checks every previously mentioned necessity.

For one, it redirects attention on America’s national interest by rejecting any grand global “War on [Ideological Concept].” It does not tie the United States into any sort of world-spanning battle. It simply seeks to protect America from geographic threats and keeps its influence in key geographic areas in case more is needed—both of which should be the main goals of America’s national interest.

It is also transferrable from administration to administration. Much like the Monroe Doctrine of old, Monroe+ could guide America for the rest of the century. Absent ideological threats to the United States like communism, America should prepare to face China, which by all accounts is a traditional rising power: nationalistic, expanding its influence, and gearing up for a potential war. A doctrine like this would prepare the United States properly. Different presidents may add their own tweaks and focus on different aspects of Monroe+, but it would ultimately remain consistent. This also makes it more politically tenable; it is fairly easy to understand why these areas should be kept free of anti-Americanism, and as a result, will not require tenuous political arguments to gain public support. This straightforwardness has another added benefit: by not basing America’s foreign policy around promoting an ideology, such as democracy promotion or a “war on autocracy,” future presidents will not fall into the trap of being rightfully tarred as hypocrites for being necessary allies with autocratic regimes.

Finally, Monroe+ takes advantage of existing alliances instead of simply discarding them. The European Union (EU), which is a close ally of the United States and comprises the vast majority of NATO members, currently holds something akin to vassal-lite status. It has steadily attempted to gain more independence from the United States, but, after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, now buys more liquid natural gas from America than it does Russia. This presents America a key advantage: it can utilize Europe’s desire for independence while keeping EU members from straying too far. In a break with the past, the new doctrine would therefore see America urge Europe to develop its own defense infrastructure. NATO could then be transformed into a two-power bloc, composed of the United States and the EU (along with the UK and Norway). The EU could then keep an eye on one end of the Sino-Russian bloc, Russia (with the voraciously anti-Russian Eastern European states ensuring the EU never switches sides), while America finally completes the long-discussed “Pivot to Asia” to keep an eye on the other end. Not only is a more united Europe going to be less susceptible to Chinese influence—keeping that end of Eurasia free of governmental anti-Americanism—but by staying true to older alliances (while forcing them to pick up the slack), it will make it easier for America to build stronger alliances in East Asia.