The Post-American Presidency (Part I)
Was the Carter Administration was the first to imagine a world in which the United States is not preeminent?
February 4, 2008
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 on his entry into office as a representative of the southern conservative wing of the Democratic Party.
Not without reason. If he had been designed to win over the conservative suburbanites of the Midwest and the New South, he would have looked just like his résumé.
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.
That was not recognized for some time because Carter’s radicalism had roots in religion, which most Washington insiders did not share and could hardly recognize. He was a serious Christian, a southern Baptist brought up under Jim Crow, who realized as an adult that the political status quo of his youth had been structurally sinful.
He was therefore more open than most to the secular argument advanced by 1960s radicals that the United States as a whole had become a nation deeply implicated in a structurally sinful international status quo.
The evidence they pointed to included the support of right-wing dictators around the globe, interfering in foreign elections to prevent the election of pro-communist parties, trying (and failing) to assassinate Fidel Castro, seeking to suppress popular revolutionary movements such as the Vietcong — and ignoring the human rights of those oppressed by U.S. allies such as General Pinochet, South Africa and the Shah of Iran.
A third charge was added to that indictment as the 1970s wore on. The United States was also a frivolously wasteful power in its economic and environmental impact.
Its exploitation of the world’s scarce natural resources was selfish and unsustainable — both because Americans used those resources to support a wasteful lifestyle and because they were now running out.
All these evils were sustained by an international economic and political system of which the United States was the main prop. 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.
Vietnam showed that oppressed peoples in the developing world would never submit to being governed permanently by either foreigners or kleptocrats. Decolonization and the spread of radical nationalist or socialist governments were both simply a matter of time.
The only question for America was whether to be on their side or against them. And to be on the side of oppressed people meant changing sides in many cases since their oppressors were our friends and allies.
An apparently unending series of terrorist atrocities from Israel to Uruguay similarly showed there was no purely military solution to terrorism. Since the terrorist would always get through (like the bomber in the 1930s), the best solution was to siphon off his support by proposing political changes such as land reform and “human rights.”
That would not only address legitimate popular aspirations, but also politically isolate the terrorists who exploited them.
A similar logic dictated a more cooperative relationship with poorer countries. From Carter’s perspective, Americans could no longer oppose outright such ideas as the New World International Order, which was designed by the UN to divide the world’s wealth more equitably (and thus to the detriment of the United States).
These proposals arose from the clash between shrinking world resources and growing demands for global justice. Something like an NWIO was inevitable.
Consequently, Americans should come to terms with that fact, change their lifestyle and tighten their belts voluntarily — or accept the imposition of economic controls by the government. Economic controls would probably be necessary anyway in order to conquer the inflation rising everywhere.
And there was, finally, the Soviet threat. This looked real enough, and in a sense it was real — the Soviet Navy, the Red Army and the SS-20 missiles all existed.
According to the Carter outlook, however, they were politically a symptom of the Soviets’ strategic insecurity, rather than a bid for strategic dominance. This insecurity would only be encouraged by any U.S. policy of strategic competition.
It could best be averted by arms control negotiations that demonstrated willingness by the United States to surrender any strategic advantage it enjoyed along with the weapons systems that embodied such an advantage.
By gaining their trust, the Americans would help the Soviets to disarm. Otherwise, the United States and the USSR would be “apes on a treadmill” — as Carter’s arms control director and chief SALT negotiator Paul C. Warnke put it in an influential 1975 article — competing in a pointless race for surplus superiority.
“We can be the first off the treadmill,” Warnke wrote. “That’s the only victory the arms race has to offer.”
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.
It would be assisting historical forces that were more or less bound to prevail, and simultaneously wrong-footing the Soviet Union by switching from military to ideological and even moral competition in world politics — not wasting its substance backing the dictators and corrupt right-wingers doomed by history.
Instead of resisting the global trends that struck most Americans and West Europeans as threatening, the Carter Administration would embrace and exploit them politically.
Despite its diverse and even contradictory origins — the Baptist religion, 1960s radicalism, left-of-center foreign policy “realism” — the Carter foreign policy held together intellectually.
It also had one major success: Its stress on supporting human rights succeeded in embarrassing the Soviet Union. In particular, Carter’s exploitation of the Helsinki process (started by President Ford and Henry Kissinger) granting civil and political rights to dissidents in Eastern Europe gave the latter real, if limited, help in their struggles with the communist governments.
That aside, Carter’s overall approach had two great flaws. The first was that it failed on almost everything except Helsinki. The second was that it was deeply at odds with U.S. interests, with the efficiency of the U.S. economy, with rooted American values — and above all with the confident patriotic “can do” spirit of American life.
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.
By accepting Leonid Brezhnev’s assurances, sealed with a kiss, Carter portrayed the Soviet Union as essentially a pacific power anxious to end the Cold War, and thus a trustworthy partner in arms control negotiations.
Most Americans, then in the grip of the Vietnam syndrome, hoped that was the case. But their residual skepticism, Yankee or Jacksonian according to taste, made them doubt that policy should be rooted in such hopes as long as Soviet surrogates were rampaging around Africa and Latin America.
Carter felt — he would have said “recognized” — that the American way of life, combining freedom with prosperity, was no longer possible in a world where shortages of raw materials made controls essential and rationing perhaps morally obligatory. Most Americans still held the faith that the free enterprise system would deliver the goods unless government obstructed it.
Above all, Carter believed that the American people should maturely accept a narrowing of their hopes and horizons in an interdependent world where other nations, international bodies and the facts of economic life would increasingly constrict America’s options. Most Americans still agreed with Ronald Reagan that “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
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 America 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.
Editor’s Note: Read Part II here.
Carter's presidency was a post-American administration before the concept of post-Americanism had been invented.
Above all, Carter believed that the American people should maturely accept a narrowing of their hopes and horizons in an interdependent world.
Carter felt — he would have said "recognized" — that the American way of life, combining freedom with prosperity, was no longer possible.
Instead of resisting the global trends that struck most Americans and West Europeans as threatening, the Carter Administration embraced and exploited them politically.
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.
Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute John O’Sullivan is Executive Editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, setting editorial vision and direction for the organization. He has served as a senior editor at the London Times and the Daily Telegraph, and as a special adviser to Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher. He helped found the Canadian daily, the […]