Review of Betty Glad, An Amateur in the White House: Jimmy Carter, His Advisors and the Making of American Foreign Policy, Cornell University Press, 2009

David Skidmore
Drake University

Betty Glad’s examination of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy record focuses on the president’s relationship with his principal advisors. Her thesis is relatively straightforward: Carter sought to pursue an idealistic foreign policy which produced some real successes, but which also suffered from complications resulting from Carter’s own inexperience and his inability to reconcile his own moralism with the realities of power politics. Over time, Carter abandoned essential elements of his initially liberal approach to foreign policy in favor of an increasingly hard line Cold War approach. This turn was crucially influenced by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who pushed aside Cyrus Vance and Carter’s other top foreign policy advisors through a combination of Machiavellian bureaucratic maneuvering and his own personal relationship with Carter. The end result was a disappointing and contradictory foreign policy record that departed in dramatic ways from the tone and substance of Carter’s early promises.

This is not an original interpretation. The factors that Glad emphasizes – Carter’s moralism, his inexperience and his inability to manage conflicts among his foreign policy advisors – have been conventional wisdom at least since the publication of Gaddis Smith’s Morality, Reason and Power. Other works that take a similar interpretation include Donald Spencer, The Carter Implosion: Jimmy Carter and the Amateur Style of Diplomacy; Richard Thorton, The Carter Years: Toward a New Global Order and Scott Kaufman, Plans Unraveled: The Foreign Policy of the Carter Administration.

Glad’s interpretation is as vulnerable to critique as the conventional wisdom it so closely mirrors. By focusing so narrowly on Carter’s personal characteristics and his relationships with key advisors, Glad misses the larger contexts, both international and domestic, in which decisions were made during the Carter years. And these contexts were arguably far more determining of Carter’s successes, failures and changes in direction than the twists and turns of the inner workings of the White House.

Carter’s moralism and inexperience in foreign affairs, for instance, are both vastly overemphasized by Glad and many other commentators. The priority goals that Carter and his team set for themselves in foreign affairs – strategic arms control with the Soviet Union, normalization of relations with China, the pursuit of Middle East peace, the conclusion of a canal treaty with Panama, the restoration of America’s image abroad and at home in the wake of the Vietnam debacle, the continuation of progress toward reduced barriers to trade in the global economy and gaining greater freedom from dependence on foreign oil – were inherited from previous administrations and represented objectives widely shared among moderate to liberal factions of the foreign policy elite. The connecting thread among these goals was the need to adjust to tightening international constraints on U.S. power and influence flowing from the rise of the Soviet Union to strategic parity, the growth of international economic challenges from Western Europe and Japan, the rise of Third World nationalism, the growing power of OPEC and the damage to U.S. prestige caused by failure in Vietnam.

Carter major achievements in office – SALT II (the terms of which were observed by both powers despite lack of ratification), the Panana Canal Treaties, the Camp David Accords, the transition to black rule in Zimbabwe, the recognition of China, the promotion of energy security (greater conservation, fuel switching to coal and natural gas in power plants, development of Alaskan oil fields, the filling of the strategic oil reserve, etc.), and the conclusion of the Tokyo Round of GATT negotiations – each served to relieve some of the international pressures and constraints that threatened U.S. interests during the seventies. These policies represented pragmatic responses to ongoing problems and should not be interpreted as expressions of Carter’s supposed moralism or a resurrected Wilsonian impulse. There is a coherence to Carter’s initial policy agenda that is often missed or misunderstood.

Indeed, Carter’s human rights rhetoric represented both a shrewd tactic for gaining office in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate and a means for restoring America’s claim to the moral high ground (soft power) at a time when U.S. prestige had sunk to a low point in world opinion. In actual practice, Carter applied human rights criteria selectively and strategically in U.S. relations with other states. All in all, the view that Carter’s policies were uniquely a product of inexperience, idealism and naiveté is greatly exaggerated.

So to is Glad’s emphasis on Brzezinski’s manipulative control over Carter as an explanation for the administration’s rightward turn. Far more important were domestic constraints posed by a conservative drift in Congress (even within Carter’s own party) and the public; a shift impelled by the rise of a constellation of Cold War and neoconservative pressure groups who mounted an unprecedented campaign against Détente and other liberal policies. In her introduction, Glad unwisely dismisses this right-wing campaign as a constant undercurrent in American politics that previous presidents had managed to overcome. Likewise, one finds no serious attention to domestic constraints in her narrative of Carter’s foreign policy-making record. What she overlooks, however, is that while previous presidents faced pressures from domestic hawks with regard to particular policies or decisions, Carter confronted across the board attacks on virtually his entire foreign policy agenda.

Carter’s rightward drift can be charted by way of his repeated attempts to appease conservative critics on appointments (e.g., Ted Sorenson), weapons systems (e.g., Trident, MX), defense spending, responses to Soviet involvement in Third World trouble spots, the Soviet brigade in Cuba debacle, Carter’s attacks on the Soviet’s human rights record, the administration’s tilt toward China and, finally, Carter’s almost hysterical response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Brzezinski’s rise in influence was a product of Carter’s attempts to accommodate the right, rather than a cause of the president’s increasingly hawkish tendencies. As he sought to win over Cold Warriors in the Senate and gain respite from attacks by groups like the Committee on the Present Danger, Carter naturally turned to the advisor who had the most credibility with such groups and even established Brzezinski as his back-channel conduit to conservative critics.

Contrary to Glad’s account, in other words, Carter’s initial policies had little to do with his personal moralism, but instead represented a pragmatic effort to adjust America’s global position in response to an age of tightened constraints abroad. In this respect, there was much continuity between Carter’s policies and his predecessors. Carter’s inexperience no doubt led to missteps and complications – such as his initial “deep cuts” arms control proposal to the Soviet Union – but a president capable of concluding SALT II, the Panama Canal Treaties, the Camp David Accords, the Tokyo Round of trade negotiations, the recognition of China and the transition to black rule in Zimbabwe can hardly be labeled an “amateur” when it comes to foreign policy (which is why the title is both misleading and unfair). And any account of U.S. foreign policy in the Carter years that downplays the domestic constraints that the president faced is inadequate.

In sum, Glad’s narrow focus on Carter’s personal qualities and his advisory system produces a flawed account of patterns of success and failure in his foreign policies and of the rightward drift of those policies over time. By ignoring the broader international and domestic contexts with which Carter grappled, Glad fails to grasp the underlying strategic rationale for Carter’s initial policy approach (one focused on adjusting U.S. policy to an age of growing international constraints) as well as the domestic factors that undermined this approach. In these ways, she repeats errors that are pervasive in much of the existing literature on Carter’s foreign policies.

 

 

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