efore assuming the presidency, Jimmy Carter had been a oneterm governor of a southern state with no national or
international experience. He did, however, have his own foreign
policy goals. Carter believed in the rule of law in international affairs and in
the principle of self-determination for all people. Moreover, he wanted the
United States to take the lead in promoting universal human rights. Carter
believed that American power should be exercised sparingly and that the
United States should avoid military interventions as much as possible.
Finally, he hoped that American relations with the Soviet Union would
continue to improve and that the two nations could come to economic and
arms control agreements that would relax Cold War tensions.
During his campaign, Carter’s aides claimed he would govern in a different
way, specifically, that he would not appoint Washington insiders to top
foreign policy positions. Once elected, however, Carter recognized that he
needed experts around him to conduct his foreign policy. He named
Columbia University professor Zbigniew Brzezinski as his national security
adviser and former Defense Department official and Johnson
Jimmy Carter: Foreign Affairs
JIMMY CARTER: FOREIGN AFFAIRS
By Robert A. Strong
administration diplomatic troubleshooter Cyrus Vance as secretary of state.
While Brzezinski and Vance both were experienced foreign policy hands,
they had different strengths and worldviews. Brzezinski, a vigoursly anticommunist Polish Ã©migrÃ© who consistently advised a tough line towards the
Soviet Union, served as the administration’s foreign policy “idea man.”
Vance, on the other hand, had strong managerial skills and was known for
his cautious and patient diplomacy. Brzezinksi and Vance clashed
throughout the Carter presidency over the tactics, strategies, and goals of
the administration’s foreign policy.
Carter came to the White House determined to make human rights
considerations integral to U.S. foreign policy. In part, this desire stemmed
from practical politics: Carter’s promises during the 1976 campaign that his
administration would highlight human rights proved popular with the
voting public. Just as important, Carter’s emphasis on human rights was
consistent with his own beliefs on the necessity of living one’s life in a
What did Carter mean when he claimed that he would make human rights a
key part of American foreign policy? Early in his presidency, Carter
explained that U.S. support for human rights involved promoting “human
freedom” worldwide and protecting “the individual from the arbitrary
power of the state.” These principles grew out of the United Nation’s 1948
“Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which established the foundation
of the modern human rights movement. Carter believed in holding
accountable America’s allies as well as its adversaries for their human rights
failings, an approach that risked straining relations with friends and
widening existing rifts with foes. These were risks Carter was willing to
The Carter administration’s human rights record was mixed. The President
and his advisers denounced human rights violations by the Soviet Union
and its East European allies. In addition, American allies like South Korea
also came under tough criticism for repressing democratic dissent.
Moreover, the United States took tangible actionsâ€”including the
suspension of military or economic aidâ€”to protest the human rights
practices of the governments of Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Uganda.
On the other hand, the Carter administration toned down its human-rights
based criticisms of the Soviet Union after the Brezhnev government
threatened to end arms control talks. Moreover, Carter refused to halt the
sale of military supplies to Iran, whose government violently repressed its
opponents, even though some of his advisers urged him to do so.
The legacies of Carter’s human rights gambits were just as mixed as their
practice. Carter, more than any previous President, injected human rights
considerations into American foreign policy, legitimizing these concerns in
the process. But conservative Republicans skillfully and successfully
attacked Carter for supposedly undercutting American allies by criticizing
their human rights’ shortcomings. These attacks proved harmful to Carter
during the 1980 election.
The Panama Canal
One of Carter’s first challenges involved the U.S. role in Panama. A 1904
treaty negotiated by President Theodore Roosevelt permitted the U.S. to
use and occupy the Panama Canal Zone, a strip of land adjacent to the
Panama Canal, which opened in 1914. In 1936 President Franklin Roosevelt,
as part of the “good neighbor policy” had dropped the U.S. claim to have the
right to protect American lives and property in Panamanian cities. In 1964,
after anti-American riots by Panamanian students, the U.S. and Panama
agreed to negotiate on the future status of the zone. These negotiations
were based on “eight principles” agreed to by Henry Kissinger in 1974,
providing for Panamanian operation of the canal by 1999, and an end to U.S.
occupation of the zone, thereby establishing Panamanian sovereignty.
Carter did not prove an adept negotiator. His delegation did not include any
U.S. senators, and he did not keep them well informed until August 1977
when an “Agreement in Principle” was signed with Panama.
Conservatives organized grassroots opposition to the treaty, which Carter
tried to counter by enlisting support from former presidents and giving a
“fireside chat” to the American people. In Senate hearings Secretary of State
Vance claimed that the U.S. could unilaterally defend the canal, but
Panama’s chief treaty negotiator, Romulo Escobar, denied that the U.S.
would have any right to intervene after the treaty was ratified. Senators
Robert Byrd and Howard Baker then sponsored a bipartisan “leadership
amendment” defining U.S. rights to defend the canal. Eventually the
agreement passed the Senate, but only after amendments granting the U.S.
the right to intervene had been introduced by Senator Dennis DeConcini
and accepted reluctantly by Panamanian president Omar Torrijos. It was a
humiliating moment for Carter and Vance, even though they had won treaty
Thereafter Republicans would attack Carter for being “weak” and for “giving
away” the Panama Canal, a theme that would play particularly well in the
southern states in the midterm elections in 1978 and the presidential
elections in 1980. Carter had demonstrated great courage in concluding the
negotiations: public opinion polls showed three-quarters of the American
people were opposed to it.
Camp David Accords
The greatest foreign policy success of the Carter presidency involved the
Middle East. After the Yom Kippur War of 1973 between Israel and its Arab
enemies, Egypt and Syria, the Israelis had gradually disengaged their forces
and moved a distance back in the Sinai Peninsula. They were still occupying
Egyptian territory, however, and there was no peace between these
adversaries. In the fall of 1978, Carter invited Israel’s Prime Minister
Menachem Begin and Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat to sit down with
Carter at Camp David, a rural presidential retreat outside Washington.
Between September 5 and September 17, 1978, Carter shuttled between
Israeli and Egyptian delegations, hammering out the terms of peace.
Consequently, Begin and Sadat reached a historic agreement: Israel would
withdraw from the entire Sinai Peninsula; the U.S. would establish
monitoring posts to ensure that neither side attacked the other; Israel and
Egypt would recognize each other’s governments and sign a peace treaty;
and Israel pledged to negotiate with the Palestinians for peace.
Not since Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War in
1905 had a president so effectively mediated a dispute between two other
nations. Begin made several concessions to Carter, including agreeing to the
principle of Egyptian sovereignty over the entire Sinai, and complete Israeli
withdrawal from all military facilities and settlements. In return, Carter
agreed to provide Israel with funds to rebuild Israeli military bases in the
Negev Desert. Because Sadat and Carter had positions that were quite close,
the two men became good friends as the conference progressed. Sadat also
made some concessions to Carter, which alienated some of his own
delegation. His prime minister resigned at the end, believing that Sadat had
been outmaneuvered by the Americans and Israelis.
The Camp David Accords, initialed on September 17, 1978 and formally
signed in Washington on March 26, 1979, were the most significant foreign
policy achievement of the Carter administration, and supporters hoped it
would revive his struggling presidency. Although Begin and Sadat received
the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for this action, Carter received no significant
political benefit from this achievement.
Relations with the Soviet Union
Carter hoped to continue the policy of dÃ©tente with the Soviet Union, but
his appointment to the National Security Council (NSC) post of Brzezinski
gave him an adviser who was profoundly suspicious of Soviet motives, and
led Carter into several major confrontations with the Russians. Carter
ordered a massive five-year defense buildup that the Soviets found
provocative. In turn, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to quash a Muslimbased rebellion outraged the United States. The guerrilla war that ensued
put a crimp in arms control talks between Moscow and Washington. The
two sides had signed SALT II, a treaty limiting the deployment of nuclear
missiles, and the treaty had been sent to the Senate. After the invasion it
was clear that the Senate would take no action. Carter withdrew the treaty,
but Moscow and Washington agreed to abide by its terms, even though
neither side ratified it.
In retaliation for the USSR invading Afghanistan, Carter cut off grain sales
to the Soviet Union and ordered a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer
Olympic Games by U.S. athletes. Because much of the public considered
this to be more punitive towards American swimmers and runners than
Soviet leaders, Carter’s response only reinforced his weak image.
Recognition of China
Carter continued to expand American contacts with communist China,
granting the communist regime formal diplomatic recognition on January 1,
1979. To do so required the severing of diplomatic ties and withdrawal of
recognition of non-communist Taiwan (also known as the Republic of
China). Moreover, Carter unilaterally revoked the 1955 Mutual Defense
Treaty with the Republic of China, effective January 1, 1980. Carter’s treaty
abrogation was challenged in the federal courts by conservative
Republicans. In the federal district court his opponent’s won. However, in
an appeals court the government’s position that Carter had the power to
abrogate the treaty without Senate consent prevailed. The Supreme Court
then threw the entire case out without rendering any decision (on a
technicality involving the standing to sue of Republican Senator Barry
Goldwater), thus leaving the constitutional victory with the president by
default. Carter’s recognition of China significantly reduced tensions in East
Asia. Hard-liners in China were replaced by communists who were more
interested in economic growth than in military confrontations. Beneficial
trade relations were established between China and the U.S., leading to
huge imports of finished consumer goods from China, in return for U.S.
lumber and foodstuffs.
To substitute for diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Congress passed the
Taiwan Relations Act. It provided for the creation of an American Institute
on Taiwan, which bought the old American embassy. Institute staffers
consisted of newly retired American foreign service officers experienced in
Far Eastern Affairs. Taiwan established a corresponding institute in
Washington, D.C., staffed with its retired diplomats. Thus each side
continued with quasi-diplomatic relations, even though the pretense was
that they had cut off the relationship. The U.S. continued to supply arms to
Taiwan to defend itself from the mainland, a step that kept some friction in
The Iran Hostage Crisis
Iran had become important to the 20th century chessboard for two reasons.
Oil had been discovered there in 1909, and it was considered the geographic
cork that kept Russia in the Asian bottle and out of the Middle East. The
British, through Anglo-Dutch Shell Oil, had reaped Iranian oil for almost
nothing through mid-century, but in 1951 a volatile new prime minister,
Mohammad Mossadeq, threw them out. The American government became
concerned that Iran was now ripe for a Soviet takeover. The Central
Intelligence Agency staged a coup that toppled the prime minister and
restored power to the Pahlavi ruling dynasty, whose monarch at the time
had been reduced to a figurehead under Mossadeq. This leader, Mohammad
Reza Shah Pahlava, (“Shah” meaning “ruler”) was allowed to govern once
rights to 80 percent of the oil were ceded (transferred) to American and
British interests. This made the Shah a Western puppet in the eyes of many
But the Shah, emboldened by American support over the years, became
increasingly tyrannical towards his people. He outlawed rival political
factions and deployed one of the world’s most feared secret police agencies.
This resulted in countless human rights violations. By the time of the
Carter presidency, discontent with the Shah was widespread in Iran, and so
was civil disorder. The Shah’s most virulent opposition was led by a radical
Islamic group that wanted to create a government adhering more strictly to
their faith’s teachings. Their supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini,
had been in exile in Paris for fifteen years. But by early 1979 the
conservative Islamic movement had become so strong that the Shah was
forced to flee Iran and turn over power to a new group of Western oriented
technocrats. The Ayatollah returned to his homeland soon afterward and
was instantly installed by a million Iranians marching on the capital as the
nation’s undisputed leader.
The Shah was now in exile in Mexico, dying from cancer, and President
Carter allowed him to come to the United States for refuge and medical
treatment. This enraged Muslim fundamentalists in Iran. In November
1979, Islamic student militants loyal to the Ayatollah overran the American
embassy in Teheran, Iran’s capital. They seized sixty-six Americans and
held them hostage, demanding the Shah’s return to stand trial. In addition
they demanded money and property that the Shah had stashed outside Iran,
and an apology from America, who they considered “The Great Satan.”
Carter took immediate action. He froze billions of dollars of Iranian assets
in the United States, then began secret negotiations, but nothing worked.
The manner in which television network news reported on the crisis served
to build up America’s frustration. Mobs burned the American flag and
shouted “Marg bar Amerika” (“Death to America”) on nightly television
news broadcasts in Iran. These film clips were rebroadcast in the United
States, creating feelings of apprehension for the hostages and anger at Iran.
By counting the number of days that the hostages had been held in capacity,
nightly announcements such as “America Held Hostage, Day Eighty-nine”
focused on the prolonged aspect of the situation. Americans grew impatient
with the seemingly ineffective president who could not win the hostages’
release. The Iranians heightened this political tension by making bright
promises and then going back on them almost daily.
Finally, Carter approved a secret military mission to attempt to free the
hostages. Unfortunately, three of the eight helicopters carrying the assault
force developed mechanical problems. One crashed into a transport aircraft
in a remote desert in Iran, killing eight soldiers. After the failure, Iran
dispersed the hostages to hideouts throughout the country, making rescue
impossible. The failure of the rescue mission doomed Carter politically. It
seemed to reinforce the widespread notion that he could not get things
done, and that America had lost its edge. His approval rating dropped badly
and he was up for reelection within a year, when Republicans would make a
major issue of his performance in the crisis. Near the end of his
administration Carter concluded an agreement that led to the release of the
hostages. His executive agreement with Iran specified that the U.S. would
unblock all Iranian funds, and the U.S. and Iran would utilize a tribunal at
the Hague, Netherlands, to settle their financial claims. The U.S. also
promised not to interfere in the internal affairs of Iran. In return, Iran
agreed to release the hostages. The U.S. embassy subsequently became a
training camp for the Revolutionary Guards, the most militant and most
anti-American wing of the groups backing the Islamic regime.
Jimmy Carter Presidency Page
JIMMY CARTER ESSAYS
Life in Brief
Life Before the Presidency
Robert A. Strong
Professor of Politics
Washington and Lee University
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