Obama, Carter and the Post-American Presidency

In what ways may the Carter era foreshadow the first term of an Obama presidency?

July 24, 2008

In what ways may the Carter era foreshadow the first term of an Obama presidency?

Thirty-two years ago, James Earl Carter — a Southern governor, Georgia peanut farmer and nuclear naval officer — was elected President of the United States of America.

He was seen initially as a representative of the southern conservative wing of the Democratic Party. But his administration had a very different character from the start. It was a post-American administration — before the concept of post-Americanism had been invented.

Carter’s campaign claim that he wanted a U.S. government “as good as the American people” was widely seen as a response to Watergate. It was, in fact, a comprehensive prescription for public policy.

It was also, at least in the eyes of its practitioners, something more than the pursuit of political virtue. It was a hard-headed accommodation of large historical trends that might be diverted — but could not really be stopped.

In general, the Carter policy held that the United States should demonstrate, by its words and actions, that it understood and supported the aspirations of the developing world for a better life, which the United States had previously opposed.

In the future, Washington would be the linchpin of global justice and human rights. And in adopting this new stance, the United States under Carter would be acting prudently and sensibly as well as morally.

Carter’s call for a government that was as good as the American people betrayed a conviction that the United States had either been a hypocritically imperialist power, or on the wrong side of history, or something of both. Meanwhile, most Americans believed, not without reason, that the United States had been one of the most generous great powers in history.

Carter’s beliefs were not anti-American — he was a patriot who had served in the military. Nor were they “un-American,” since that word had acquired a special meaning in the post-war years.

But they might fairly be described as “post-American” since they assumed that the “American century” had come to a premature end, that the United States was losing its pre-eminent role in global politics as other nations caught up — and that American values would have to be reshaped to conform to these new realities.

If the policies rooted in post-Americanism had then succeeded, the American people would have gradually seen and imitated his wisdom. But they failed. Carter’s foreign policy soon became associated with passivity and retreat.

That was seen most dramatically in his handling of the hostage crisis when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was seized and 53 Americans, mainly U.S. diplomats, were held hostage by Iranian “students” supported by the new revolutionary Islamic government under Khomeini.

Virtually forced to react by popular pressure, Carter attempted a rescue mission in April 1980 that had to be aborted when some of the helicopters were grounded in the desert by sand in the machinery.

It is hard today to grasp just how severe a blow to American prestige the fiasco of Desert One was.

In the wake of this failure, Carter’s foreign policy increasingly seemed to be one of active helplessness. Propelled by these crises and by ever-worsening economic statistics, the Carter Administration careened towards defeat in an atmosphere of growing national anxiety.

Reagan replaced him — and, well, the world knows the rest.

Thirty-two years later, a number of things are clearer. First, Carter’s personal post-Americanism — no longer disguised by the necessities of office — is a flaming fact. It is also a political novelty.

What is also clearer, secondly, is that the 1970s were the worst possible time to embark on a post-American grand strategy. The world was divided by the Cold War. The Soviets were advancing in all sorts of directions.

The global economy was in the grip of hyper-inflation. The developing world was deluded by hopes of massive global wealth transfers under UN auspices.

One effect of these trends was to divide and cripple the global institutions that would be needed to restrain U.S. power under any rational scheme of post-Americanism.

Almost all of these 1970s barriers to post-Americanism crumbled, however, when communism collapsed and global bodies began to assert themselves in a uni-polar world. Post-American ideas had been opposed by Europe when the Red Army was threatening it.

They became much more attractive as a way of restraining the sole superpower. Today, post-Americanism is almost the public philosophy of the European Union and other rivals to the United States.

More curiously, post-Americanism is growing more popular in America itself. In its first coming under Carter, it was the grand strategy that dare not speak its name.

Its constituency was confined to a few think tanks and Ivy League political science departments. Its national support in those days would probably have just reached double digits in a national opinion poll.

Reagan’s victory in 1980 was an expression of a strong American patriotism that rejected it wholeheartedly.

Today, this mood has changed. As far back as in a 2004 interview, Senator Obama hit upon his theme, attacking as “arrogance” the Bush Administration’s refusal to subject U.S. policy to control by a series of new global bodies. He saw the Iraq war as:

“… emblematic of a general arrogance of this administration that was on display before Iraq. It was true with our unilateral rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, we could have done something about greenhouse gases, it was true of our unilateral rejection of the International Criminal Court which, had we been a signatory, could have actually dealt with Saddam Hussein in an appropriate setting.”

“This administration has repeatedly shown disregard for other countries and world opinion. That is fundamentally a mistake.”

Today, there is a far larger national constituency than in 1980 that prefers such “global governance” to America’s liberal constitutionalism.

So 2008 might see the second coming of Jimmy Carter in foreign policy — and in more propitious circumstances than in 1976.

It is questionable, however, whether any circumstances can be propitious enough for post-Americanism to succeed in the United States itself. Its flaws as a strategy are obviously not that it loses elections.

Rather, it suffers as a guiding light because, within the confines of the U.S. debate, it is readily open to the criticism that post-Americanism hands power over Americans to institutions and people who never hold elections in the first place.

More on this topic

Takeaways

2008 might see the second coming of Jimmy Carter in foreign policy — and in more propitious circumstances than in 1976.

The 1970s were the worst possible time to embark on a post-American grand strategy. The world was divided by the Cold War. The Soviets were advancing in all sorts of directions.

Today, post-Americanism is almost the public philosophy of the European Union and other rivals to the United States.

Carter's beliefs might fairly be described as "post-American" since they assumed that the "American century" had come to a premature end.

Carter's call for a government that was as good as the American people betrayed a conviction that the United States had either been a hypocritically imperialist power, or on the wrong side of history, or something of both.