What argument is Carter trying to make/say, and what is the importance and the larger significance of President Jimmy Carter's commencement address he gave at Notre Dame University on May 22, 1977?

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beateach | Elementary School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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In former President Jimmy Carter’s commencement address at Notre Dame University on May 22, 1977, he explained that America’s foreign policy should be shaped by the need for global human rights. He shared his deep belief in basic human rights for all. His quote was, “I believe we can have a foreign policy that is democratic, that is based on fundamental values, and that uses power and influence, which we have, for humane purposes.” He spoke to his belief in the democratic process and the need for foreign policy to be transparent to the American electorate saying “And we are confident of the good sense of American people, and so we let them share in the process of making foreign policy decisions. We can thus speak with the voices of 215 million, and not just of an isolated handful.”

In his speech to the graduates, he emphasized five specific ideals that supported his position that America’s prosperity could not be the only condition to base foreign policy decisions on.

His first point stated when setting foreign policy, America had to put human rights in the forefront of policy decisions. He went on to explain that it was imperative that the democratic countries of the world unite for economic strength by improving the worldwide monetary system, and to examine ways to increase free trade. His third point targeted the arms race with the Soviet Union. He felt it was a dangerous situation, but also was wrong on a moral level. His fourth point aimed at establishing peace with the Middle East through negotiations. Finally, he spoke to the idea that the spread of nuclear weapons must stop and there should be a reduction of “conventional” weapons in general.

After making his five points, he spoke about the need to resolve that crisis in Southern Africa and to work on a relationship with the People’s Republic of China. He felt that this relationship was of paramount importance to world peace.

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In this commencement address, President Carter is arguing that the United States needs to change the way it thinks about foreign policy.  It needs to move away from a policy that is based on opposing communism at all costs.  Instead, it needs to base its foreign policy on the idea of human rights and morality.  This was a significant change from the Vietnam Era and it would help bring about a backlash a few years later when Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in the election of 1980.

During the Cold War, the US generally opposed communism and supported non-communist rulers without regard for any other considerations.  For example, the US supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and the military dictatorship in South Korea because those countries were strong opponents of communism. This approach (we can argue) was completely pragmatic and ignored moral concerns.

In this speech, President Carter is arguing that the US should move away from this kind of Cold War thinking.  He says that the US needs to base its foreign policy of human rights and morality.  Instead of simply doing whatever seems likely to make the US more powerful, the country needs to think about the needs and the rights of other countries. 

During Carter’s presidency, he did actually make some changes in American foreign policy.  However, these changes were very unpopular with much of the American public.  Americans thought that Carter’s foreign policy made us look weak.  They preferred a strong foreign policy that put American interests ahead of those of other countries.  This was a major reason why President Carter lost his reelection campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1980.

This discussion continues to be important today as Republicans accuse Barack Obama of unilaterally weakening America in an attempt to seem moral by prioritizing human rights and the needs of other countries.

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