As grand strategy evolves in America’s ongoing democratic political process, the essence of the Plato Doctrine will be preserved in any new formulation of a national security doctrine, because such is the nature of human political life…

hopliteI have argued that there is no Platonic teaching of a “noble lie,” but rather of “some one noble [thing],” by which all the citizens of the polity may profitably rally together around a national security doctrine. The reality of politics, as Aristotle recognized, is that we cannot expect mathematical certainty about its affairs. Plato’s similar recognition of this necessary murkiness in human things is his Plato Doctrine — my appellation for his teaching that “some one noble [doctrine]” is a polity’s best attempt to steer itself through the darkness and to articulate guidance for its leaders.[1]

People expect that a Trump Doctrine will decisively repudiate the neoconservative adventurism in the Middle East of the Bush Doctrine. Yet the remarkable feature of U.S. foreign policy’s presidential doctrines is the large degree of continuity between them, despite their various changing emphases that are designed to address the most pressing questions of the day. The Trump Doctrine may end up being oddly continuous with the Obama Doctrine, by which the U.S. largely aims at withdrawal from policing the Middle East. Yet it is also worth exploring what a Trump Doctrine might end up sharing with the Bush Doctrine, despite the president-elect’s campaign-mode criticisms of the Iraq War.

What the Bush Doctrine itself enunciates becomes clearer when viewed in the wider context of the ongoing evolution of a polity’s national security tradition. What is the Bush Doctrine’s “some one noble [thing],” most characteristic of its aims and emphases? Some have identified its essence as “unilateralism” or “preemption”. But these characteristics of American policy are not novel with Bush,[2] and do not articulate what is new and peculiar in the Bush Doctrine.

The essence of the Bush Doctrine of the 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) is not that terrorists and state sponsors of terror are targets of America’s pre-emption; this is rather a consequence of the NSS’s grand strategy of protecting liberty by effecting the democratization of the Middle East. Some people may have thought that this grand strategy was the “noble lie” of an oligarchic ruling cabal malevolently intent on waging war and not focused enough on peace. However that may be, that question was a deliberative matter to be settled by political argument. As it turns out, the verdict of history seems to have been the repudiation, by the people who turned out to vote for both Obama and Trump, of any such grand strategy of democratizing abroad.

Nevertheless, as grand strategy evolves in America’s ongoing democratic political process, the essence of the Plato Doctrine will be preserved in any new formulation of a national security doctrine, because such is the nature of human political life. But the Plato Doctrine — that political leaders always need visionary organizing principles for their grand strategy — is an operative truth in any polity only insofar as the military is subject to democratic audit. Such has not usually been the case in human history, but civic audit of the military was the condition in ancient Athens as it is also in America: i.e., the condition that best fosters the existence and articulation of a guiding national security doctrine.

The NSS of the Bush administration did articulate a national security strategy that was consonant with the essence of the Plato Doctrine. All that I mean by this claim is that once we realize there is no “noble lie” as an essential part of the Plato Doctrine, we see that its essence is the articulation of national security principles that lack mathematical certainty. Plato’s text does not support the all-too popular misrepresentation that the essence of the Plato Doctrine is that it counsels rulers to always tell lies in the service of national security. The need for sometimes keeping national security secrets is only an incidental and not a universal feature of the Plato Doctrine.

The Plato Doctrine is instead that “some one noble” thing desperately needs to be articulated to all the citizens for them to believe in, a requirement which also includes the rulers and their beliefs. Such a political doctrine attempts to articulate what a nation would most require to ensure its national security. It thus ends up articulating a traditional vision (the nation’s past views on national security) but now fitted to the best deliberative approximation of truth (in contemporary matters of national security).[3]

The Bush administration NSS articulated this in terms of who ought to rule and who ought to be ruled. America ought to lead, because its gold standard is freedom: “Freedom is the non-negotiable demand of human dignity; the birthright of every person—in every civilization.”[4] It may be seen that the NSS, with its doctrine of who ought to rule, and how people are to be ruled, actually formulated Plato’s “some one noble [thing]” in its own way as the “balance of power that serves freedom”:[5]

The United States possesses unprecedented— and unequaled—strength and influence in the world. Sustained by faith in the principles of liberty, and the value of a free society, this position comes with unparalleled responsibilities, obligations, and opportunity. The great strength of this nation must be used to promote a balance of power that favors freedom.[6]

In other words, in Platonic terms, freedom is the autochthonous claim of America and its revolution, which it brings to an international strategy that “favors freedom”:

These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages.[7]

This “favors freedom” part of the grand strategy corresponds to the claim of Plato’s Autochthony Story.[8] The “balance of power” envisioned in the NSS is a newly formulated vision of the natural hierarchy of rulers: i.e., only those states whose golden rulers support the gold standard of freedom ought to rule; bronze-hearted terrorist states are the threat to this declared natural world order. But America’s claim to such natural leadership is an international version of Plato’s Story of the Metals:[9] “The United States welcomes our responsibility to lead in this great mission.”[10]

Seen in this light, the Bush Doctrine’s kinship with the Plato Doctrine may be considered in terms of how it actually attempted a definition of a visionary national security doctrine. However successful or unsuccessful such a vision may have subsequently been as a workable grand strategy, nonetheless—in consonance with the Platonic essence—it did advocate both a national vision and a natural justification for the implementation of that vision.

Whether or not one agrees with the Bush Doctrine’s national storytelling is another matter. However the case may be in that regard, we should also recognize a frequently overlooked aspect of such a national security: namely, the overlooked adjectives “some” and “one” in Plato’s teaching. In political terms, a democratic populace can usually only focus on some one thing, and in our time the political debate is over some one thing as the presidents have framed it: i.e., a debate over the American vision of liberty, and how best to keep that liberty. The import of the Bush Doctrine was nothing less than the democratization of the Middle East. Thus, its essence was a noble goal, but perhaps too noble, as critics of the Scowcroft/Baker/Eagleburger school had argued at the time.[11]

Ideally, today’s Platonic Guardians of what Jefferson called the Empire of Liberty will make the requisite prudential judgments in the service of liberty. Liberty is indeed some one noble thing, worthy of singular attention. But, as always, we are in the midst of a heated political deliberation about how best to both foster and preserve it.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


[1]The Truth about Plato’s ‘Noble Lie’,” The Imaginative Conservative (November 15, 2016). See also “Why Donald Trump Should Listen to Plato on Foreign Policy”, The Imaginative Conservative (November 26, 2016).

[2] For details, see Ivo H.Daalder and James M. Lindsay, America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003); John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (Harvard University Press, 2004); Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (New York: Knopf, 2001); and Walter Russell Mead, Power, Terror, Peace, and War (New York: Knopf, 2004). On possible futures for American policy, compare the views of Robert Cooper, The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century (Atlantic Monthly, 2004) and Lee Harris, Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History (New York: Free Press, 2004).

[3]Why Donald Trump Should Listen to Plato on Foreign Policy,” The Imaginative Conservative (November 26, 2016). See also “The Truth about Plato’s ‘Noble Lie’,” The Imaginative Conservative (November 15, 2016).

[4] “Introduction,” in the National Security Council’s “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America”, (September 2002).

[5] Cf. James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Viking, 2004), 329 on this favourite formulation of Condoleezza Rice’s as her contribution to the evolution of American foreign policy, “combining the realism (‘balance of power’) Rice had learned from mentors like Scowcroft and the ideals (‘human freedom’) of the neoconservatives.”

[6] “I. Overview of America’s International Strategy,” in the National Security Council’s “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” (September 2002).

[7] “Introduction,” in the National Security Council’s “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America”, (September 2002).

[8] Republic III. 414d-e. “I tell, indeed; and yet, not knowing what sort of boldness or kinds of words to use, I shall speak. But first I will undertake to persuade the rulers themselves and the soldiers, and then the rest of the city, that so it is that the things with regard to which we both trained and educated them, they were regarding all these things concerning themselves to suffer and happen like dreams, but they were once in truth down within the earth being molded and trained, i.e. themselves, and their weapons and the rest of their equipment being fashioned; and when they were perfectly worked-out, the earth also being their mother delivered them, and now it is necessary (since it concerns the land, their nurse and mother, in which they are) for them to both take counsel and to defend if one should attack her, and to consider the other class of citizens as being brothers and born of the earth.”

[9] Rep. III. 415a-c. “But, all the same, hear also the rest of the story. Indeed, all of you in the city are brothers (as we shall say, mythologizing to them), but the God who molded you—however many of you are fit to rule—mingled gold with you in your genesis (for which reason they are most honored); and however many are Auxiliaries, silver; and iron and bronze in both the farmers and the other craftsmen. Since all therefore are kinsmen, for the most part you may breed similarly with your same kinds, but it is possible that a silver one may come into being from a gold one, and a golden offspring from a silver one, and all the rest thusly from one another. Consequently the God commands the rulers, first and foremost, that they thus will be good Guardians of nothing else, and they will not guard anything so intently as the offspring, whatever is mixed in the same souls of them, and if a bronze or iron offspring should be born to them, they will pity it in no way, but assigning it the status befitting its nature they will thrust it into the craftsmen or into the farmers; and, in turn, if from these some golden or silver offspring should arise, having granted it its honor, they shall deem some worthy of Guardianship, and some of Auxiliary office, on the grounds that there is an oracle that the city will be destroyed at that time whenever the iron man or the brass man guards it.”

[10] “Introduction,” in the National Security Council’s “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” (September 2002).

[11] James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Viking, 2004), 336-340.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email