(appeared in US News and World Report, October 5, 2015: http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/world-report/2015/10/05/obamas-jimmy-carter-like-foreign-policies-are-his-most-successful)
Barack Obama’s critics have often invoked unflattering comparisons between his foreign policy record and former President Jimmy Carter’s perceived failures. In reality, however, Carter’s diplomatic achievements while in office stand among the most impressive of any American president. As the sad news of Carter’s cancer diagnosis prompts reflection upon his life’s work, the recent nuclear agreement with Iran should remind us of the most important legacy of Carter’s presidency: the lesson that diplomacy works. After all, Obama’s foreign policies have met with the greatest success precisely where he has most closely emulated Carter.
Both presidents rode the White House on a wave of popular revulsion at the costs and failures associated with recent or ongoing wars—Vietnam in Carter’s case; Iraq and Afghanistan in Obama’s case. Both understood that any exit from America’s debilitating and seemingly unending record of military quagmires required a foreign policy that dispensed with threat-mongering and placed diplomacy—even with adversaries—at its center.
Carter and Obama each faced the challenge of developing proportional responses to what had previously been treated as Manichean struggles; against communism in Carter’s era and against terrorism during Obama’s era. Each president sought to make room on the foreign policy agenda for a broader range of issues that engaged American values and interests, including, in both cases, human rights, arms proliferation, energy and relations with emerging powers.
Both stressed diplomacy as an alternative to military intervention and unending conflict. Neither relied upon negotiation alone and both encountered problems that could not ultimately be resolved at the bargaining table. Yet each found success in tackling conflicts long considered irresolvable.
Carter’s record is the more impressive. The SALT II agreement with the Soviet Union capped a dangerous and costly nuclear arms race (while never ratified by the United States Senate, both countries independently abided by the terms of the accord). The Panama Canal Treaty removed potential threats to the Canal’s security, while eliminating a constant irritant in U.S. relations with Latin America. The full normalization of relations with China set the stage for China’s growing integration with the existing global political and economic order over the past 35 years. The Camp David Accords removed Egypt and Jordan as military threats to Israel’s security and the transition to majority black-rule in Zimbabwe, brokered by the United States and Great Britain, brought to an end to a bloody civil war there. The successful conclusion of the Tokyo Round trade negotiations sustained progress toward a more open global economy. It is difficult to think of another president who used diplomacy to better effect in serving major American interests.
In Obama’s case, diplomacy has enabled destruction of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons while blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years. The opening to Cuba creates new opportunities for the Cuban people while enhancing America’s image across Latin America. A successful conclusion of the upcoming global climate change negotiations appears more likely in the wake of the recent joint U.S.-China declaration setting national goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The recently completed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement caps an already solid record of diplomatic accomplishments during the Obama years.
For both Carter and Obama, the bigger obstacles to diplomacy often arose at home rather than abroad. Carter faced massive, well organized and heavily funded campaigns against both the Panama Canal and SALT II treaties, as well as a drum-beat of right-wing accusations that his policies left America unprepared to meet a (mostly mythical) Soviet military buildup. The Iranian revolution and the ensuring hostage crisis sullied Carter’s reputation and may have cost him his presidency, despite the fact that the hostages were safely returned.
Obama has likewise faced heavy domestic constraints, including the Senate’s rejection of his proposed cap-and-trade energy legislation and opposition to the Iranian nuclear accord.
Diplomacy, of course, cannot solve all problems. But it served American interests remarkably well during Jimmy Carter’s brief presidency. All the more puzzling then that our memories of the Carter years are so distorted and his diplomatic achievements have gone so undervalued.
It is to Obama’s credit that he has in important ways drawn upon the positive lessons of Carter’s foreign policy legacy. And as the clock ticks down on Carter’s own remarkable life, it is well that we set aside the unkind myths that have obscured his accomplishments in office and give credit to a diplomatic groundbreaker.
David Skidmore is a Professor of Political Science at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa and author of Reversing Course: Carter’s Foreign Policy, Domestic Politics and the Failure of Reform, Vanderbilt University Press, 1996.