Jimmy Carter began his presidency with the call for a new approach to foreign policy. In his first two years as president, he embarked on a broad range of policy initiatives and enjoyed apparent successes in negotiating treaties with Panama, promoting the Camp David agreements, and establishing full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. By the end of his term, he had suffered setbacks with Afghanistan, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) II Treaty ratification, and, most dramatically, with Iran. He had also changed the tone of his foreign policy in important ways. Gaddis Smith has set for himself the task of reviewing Carter’s policies and using them to illuminate continuing debates about the foundations of American foreign policy. While doing this, he also raises implicit questions about the limits of studying recent events as history and the problems of assessing a president’s foreign policy.
Smith argues that four basic issues structured foreign-policy debates in the Carter Administration as they have in much of the twentieth century. American decision makers have varied in their perceptions and priorities but have responded to the same questions. What should be the balance between power and principle? Is foreign policy a genuine response to external threat or the product of internal interests and domestic political ambitions? Can only vital interests justify external involvement, or should active intervention be a continuing policy? Finally, particularly after World War II, should the touchstone of policy be combating the Soviet Union rather than controlling the nuclear threat and solving global economic and environmental problems? Smith sketches the patterns of response to these questions. President Woodrow Wilson combined moral idealism with a large dose of interventionism. Cold War geopolitical realists saw so great a threat that they urged subordinating most other considerations to a global battle with the Soviet Union. In Western Europe, Iran, Guatemala, or Cuba, all necessary means were to be used against the same enemy. The rough Cold War consensus about means and ends was corroded by Vietnam. Such was the context in which Carter appealed for a new approach. He urged the primacy of moral principles, the avoidance of entanglement, and the promotion of broad collaboration on global problems.
To call for a policy shift is one thing. To devise courses of action and carry them out is another. Smith reviews Carter’s efforts and, with impressive skill, summarizes the main components of complex issues. By the end of the presidential term, in Smith’s analysis, Carter had reversed course. He placed more emphasis on military strength and focused on the Soviet Union as the key to foreign policy. The appeals in the second electoral campaign were more combative and militaristic. Carter’s original vision had blurred, if not disappeared, in an approach that nevertheless was insufficient to gain popular support.
Smith uses the word failure for the Carter Administration. In doing so he raises the question of how to measure the success or failure of an administration and its policies. How does one separate political response from historical evaluation, and, in particular, how does one evaluate without the usual distance in time that gives historians a sense of perspective as well as additional information? The achievements of the first two Carter years constitute an arguably impressive record. One might ask how many successes it takes to be a failure. The list of missteps and reversals, such as the proposed withdrawal of troops from Korea or the cancellation of the neutron bomb or the uproar over a combat brigade in Cuba, is also impressive. Yet to some degree achievement is a matter of political judgment. Smith recognizes, for example, that the ratification of the Panama treaties, an achievement, was obtained at some cost in public support. Political opponents to the treaties could argue that they were a mistake and thus a policy failure. Evaluating the eventual effect of the treaties requires a broader time scale. Similarly, the failure to obtain ratification of the SALT II Treaty may be seen by another generation of historians as less significant than the fact that the treaty was negotiated and for a time structured the nuclear balance. Opponents of arms control could have a quite different assessment.
Although Smith discusses Carter’s skill or clumsiness in handling policy problems, his judgment of failure has a specific focus. Carter failed in two ways: He failed “to avoid repudiation by the American people at the polls,” and he failed to hold to his original vision, a vision that would have transcended “the normal combative, nationalistic character of foreign policy.” This is an interesting focus, for the failure Smith describes and explains is not simply mismanagement or lack of progress toward attaining national goals. It is, rather, a...
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