chapter  7
17 Pages

Jimmy Carter

ByJohn Dumbrell

President Jimmy Carter is frequently remembered as a foreign policy leader who sought to reintroduce morality into American foreign relations following the years of Henry Kissinger-led Realpolitik. Carter’s Inaugural Address of January 1977 promised a new commitment to the interpenetration of moral idealism and national self-interest. Wilsonian themes of moralistic internationalism undergirded many of Carter’s major foreign policy speeches. One strand in academic writing explicitly links the contradictions of the Wilsonian tradition – the cloaking of expansionist, market-oriented and imperialist goals in the language of democracy-oriented moralism – to parallel tendencies under Carter.1 However, Carter’s version of exportable democracy was structured around a strong and particular commitment to human rights. It was influenced not only by the reaction to Kissinger’s Realpolitik, but also by Carter’s desire to transcend the quasi-imperialist hubris of the moralistic foreign policy that had ensnared the United States into the Vietnam War. This chapter assesses the degree to which the Carter administration managed to further the agenda of a post-imperialist, human rights-oriented commitment to the international promotion of democracy. President Carter has found his academic defenders in recent years, several of

whom stress his post-White House commitment to the promotion of human rights, peace and free democratic institutions. Yet the general verdict on Carter’s foreign policy is still generally negative. He is seen by some on the right as the naive idealist who came belatedly to embrace a more coherent anti-communism after 1978. More left-leaning commentators commend the early foreign policy and deplore the proto-Reaganism of his reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Many commentators across the political spectrum see Carter’s foreign policy leadership as fundamentally confused – both in terms of its goals and its internal management.2 On the narrower theme of democracy, Carter’s stance and record are difficult to assess. His position on democracy promotion was structured

around the prior commitment to ‘human rights’ as the guiding principle (especially early in his presidency) of foreign engagement. The commitment to democracy promotion was also profoundly affected by the underlying dynamic of the administration – the move towards more orthodox policies of containment of communism in the later period – and by the intense bureaucratic and personal rivalries between White House and State Department. This chapter begins with a consideration of the administration’s general

commitment to human rights, focusing particularly on President Carter’s own understanding of the concept and its links to democracy promotion. It discusses the operationalization of the policy, especially in the context of the bureaucratic politics of the administration. How far did the human rights policy succeed in its goals? To what extent did it help or hinder the cause of global democracy? There follows a section on policy towards the Soviet Union. What was Carter’s contribution to the unravelling of Soviet communism?