President Donald Trump has pursued a foreign policy path strewn with discarded treaties, alienated allies, broken norms and the tattered remnants of America’s global reputation. Should a Democrat win the White House next November, where can they look for ideas about how to begin repairing the damage done?
Based upon my own research, I submit that a good place to start is with the foreign policy approach President Jimmy Carter pursued for restoring America’s global image and leadership. After all, the circumstances Carter faced bear an uncanny resemblance to those a Democratic president will confront should he or she win office next November. These include recent presidential scandal, the after-effects of a long and unsuccessful war and a sense, at home and abroad, that Americans lack a uniting sense of purpose.
A one term president who left office with low approval ratings, Carter’s presidential performance is often dismissed as a failure. The widespread admiration Carter has gained over the years is associated with his post-presidency, which he has devoted to fighting tropical disease, monitoring elections, promoting human rights and extolling the power of dialogue as a path to peace.
Yet there is, in fact, much that the next president could learn from Carter’s White House record. These lessons begin with the need to restore a positive agenda for America’s global role, in contrast with the amoral, Realpolitik philosophies that drove both Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Nixon’s brutal calculus of power produced devastating humanitarian catastrophes in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile and Southern Africa. Similarly, Trump has shown an appalling preference for authoritarian rulers over traditional democratic allies.
With America’s global reputation in tatters following the Vietnam War and Watergate, Carter recognized the urgency of restoring a moral foundation for American foreign policy. To be sure, the pursuit of power and profit are both unavoidable aspects of the foreign policy of any great power. Yet the willingness of many countries and peoples to accept American leadership after World War II rested in part upon the moral vision at the heart of the American-shaped liberal international order.
The same sense of moral purpose was essential to domestic support for an expansive American role abroad. The amoralism of Nixon and Trump endangered support for American leadership and fueled isolationist sentiment.
Carter’s embrace of human rights must be understood in this light. Carter was mindful of the practical need to balance human rights considerations against other interests. Yet by placing a spotlight on human rights abuses and devoting American influence to curbing them, Carter sought to restore the perception abroad that the United States stood for values of universal scope. Coupled with his promises to bring honesty and integrity back to the White House, Carter’s human rights agenda helped to revive domestic pride and confidence in America’s role in the world.
The practical consequences of Carter’s human rights policies were also significant. By throwing American support behind human rights, Carter provided added legitimacy and weight to the growing efforts of non-governmental organizations and international organizations. Authoritarian governments on both the right and the left came to realize that egregious human rights violations brought real costs. Arguably, the global spread of human rights norms contributed to the later fall of the Soviet-controlled communist bloc and to the spread of color revolutions in various countries.
The next Democratic president will face a similar challenge as Carter: how to rebuild confidence that American leadership represents broadly shared values deeper than simple calculations of power and profit. The need for such a vision is especially acute given the profound weaknesses recently exposed in the liberal international order.
Another important lesson from Carter’s experience is that diplomacy based in the pursuit of shared interest works.
Nixon and Trump, of course, both pursued vigorous diplomatic agendas. For each, however, diplomacy was an appendage of power. Diplomacy served to capture the concessions forced upon others following a campaign of threats, military force or economic sanctions. While this sort of browbeating can sometimes work, it just as often forces the other party into a posture of defiance, as Nixon learned in his failed efforts to force North Vietnam into submission. Donald Trump is currently learning the limits of coercive diplomacy in relation to Iran.
Carter’s style of diplomacy was based instead upon the search for common interests among parties initially at odds. He perceived diplomacy as a tool for both resolving insipient conflicts before they spin out of control and, where escalation has already take place, finding a path toward peace and reconciliation.
Carter’s approach paid major dividends. The SALT II agreement with the Soviet Union capped a dangerous and costly nuclear arms race (while never ratified by the Senate, both countries 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.
The Camp David Accords removed Egypt and Jordan as military threats to Israel’s security while 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.
The next Democratic president can also take a negative lesson from Carter’s experience. 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.
Over time, Carter increasingly responded to domestic political pressures by trying to prove his toughness. Defense spending rose again. Military force was attempted, unsuccessfully, in an effort to rescue the American hostages in Iran. Carter greatly overreacted to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, treating it as a precursor to a Soviet move on the Persian Gulf rather than the limited response to instability along the Soviet border that it was.
These efforts to shore up his flank against right-wing attacks did little to improve Carter’s political position but did disrupt the momentum of success that Carter had established in other areas of U.S. foreign policy. The appropriate lessons are to avoid overreacting to occasional setbacks and recognize that no amount of pandering to hard-liners will alleviate the political attacks from that quarter.
Carter’s record during a period that bears similarities with our own provides fertile ground from which the next Democratic president can draw useful lessons. A foreign policy that prioritizes diplomacy and broadly-shared values cannot solve all problems. But such an approach 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.