Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Look Back at Jimmy Carter's Human Rights Speech: 'Morality and Foreign Policy'

Today is Blog Action Day, an annual participatory event for bloggers across the globe.  This year's theme is "human rights," which brought to mind another day in which that topic sparked a global conversation.

Thirty-six years ago, in a speech to college graduates, a new American president launched a worldwide discussion on the question of human rights and how best to promote them.

On May 22, 1977, President Jimmy Carter delivered an address on foreign policy at Notre Dame. Carter’s speech was widely seen and read and was the subject of much commentary.

Jeane Kirkpatrick
Shortly after Carter’s speech was delivered, the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) published a book entitled Morality and Foreign Policy: A Symposium on President Carter’s Stance.

That slim volume -- the first book under the imprint of the EPPC, which was then affiliated with Georgetown University -- included nine original essays that reacted directly to Carter’s address and three previously published articles on the general topic of ethics and international relations and, more specifically, the role that the promotion of human rights should play in foreign policy. Contributors included future U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol, and New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

It has become something of a commonplace, and a jocular one at that, to make facile comparisons between the Carter and Obama administrations, especially with regard to foreign policy. (The comparisons were raised even before the 2008 election as a warning to voters about Candidate Obama and were accelerated by Obama's premature receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.)

Thus it was somewhat jarring to read this paragraph in the essay by Charles Burton Marshall. Substitute the word “Obama” for “Carter” and this reference to political messianism could have been written yesterday – or next week – rather than in 1977:

“Sooner or later events will demonstrate even to the tight inner circle that the Carter administration no more knows the secret for walking on water around the world than it has a formula for cleansing the public service or any other manifestation of the Old Adam. The self-enthrallment then will cease.”

That oddity aside, the substance of Carter’s speech was meant to lay down a line of demarcation between his administration’s foreign policy and that of previous administrations. As the book’s editor, Ernest W. Lefever, explained in his preface, Carter, “perhaps more than any other president since Woodrow Wilson, has sought to make morality the touchstone of his foreign policy. In so doing he draws upon a persistent and fundamental strand in the American experience. He has emphasized respect for human rights throughout the world, not only as a valued goal, but also as a specific objective of U.S. statecraft.”

Blog Action Day: October 16, 2013
In Carter’s own words at Notre Dame, he stated his belief that “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. We can also have a foreign policy that the American people both support and for a change know about and understand.”

In the single phrase that may have, more than any other, thrust Carter’s address into heightened scrutiny, he referred to the “inordinate fear of Communism.”

Given that May 1977 was in the midst of the Cold War, for those who believed the Soviet Union was an authentic threat to the West, the phrase “inordinate fear of Communism” rang untrue. As Eugene Rostow put it in his essay, “American foreign policy during the years between the Second World War and the end of the Vietnam War was not dominated by an ‘inordinate fear of Communism,’ but by a legitimate concern for policies of Soviet expansion and aggression.”

The comments of the contributors to Morality and Foreign Policy were cutting, even as they were respectful and, in some cases, shared the basic hope and optimism that Carter manifested. Re-reading them more than three decades later, it is surprising, given the different historical, diplomatic, and political contexts of the times, how relevant the remarks seem today. Listen to the words and ask yourself if you have not heard similar expressions in the months since January 20, 2009.

For instance, Robert Bartley wrote: “Almost certainly it is a mistake to look to President Carter’s professed morality to explain our concerns about his foreign policy. His version of morality is not that sharp a departure, and on experience so far not that powerful a force in shaping his policies. We would do better to worry about sheer inexperience.”

John P. Roche, then dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, tried to set Carter’s speech in a wider context:

“As a thirty-year veteran who long since reached the conviction that commencement addresses were drafted by computers, I am certain I have heard this one four times. Indeed, had I absorbed it without advance information on the source, I might have attributed it to Eleanor Roosevelt, Arthur Goldberg, Harold Stassen, or George McGovern. (At half an hour it was a bit brief for Hubert Humphrey, God bless him.) In short, it was standard commencement pap by an American ‘statesman’: ‘Speech 5c—American Policy, Morality, and the World (for use at a liberal religious school).’”

Roche went on to say: “Part of Mr. Carter’s problem in world politics is the lack of any ideological roots, a weakness which has been buttressed by a McGovernite ‘issues staff’ which sincerely believes that the world began in January 1977, when they took office. In this state of historical amnesia it is hard to deal with the degrees on the scale between ‘good’ and ‘bad.’”

The two contributors most sharply critical of Carter’s speech were Michael Novak and Eugene V. Rostow.

Novak, then a religion professor at Syracuse University, said in his response that it “is a profoundly embarrassing and disturbing speech…. [The] President’s vision is deficient. It is deficient both in realism and fact. It is deficient in its moral vision. The President uses the word moral and its cognates – values, principles, social justice, and the like – very heavily indeed. But he does not use them well.”

He later added: “One of the best ways to create an immoral foreign policy is to try too hard for a moral one.”

'Morality and Foreign Policy'
Rostow, who served in the Johnson Administration’s State Department, wrote that “President Carter’s Notre Dame speech is his most ambitious attempt thus far to define the American national interest in its course. The speech is deeply flawed: inconsistent; incomplete; and excessive in its claims of novelty…. The speech lacks any conception of the relationship between power and morality in international affairs.”

While generally content with the themes underlying President Carter’s remarks, Jeane Kirkpatrick raised six questions demanding clarification or explication. One was: “Why does the President think that ‘a peaceful world cannot exist one third rich and two thirds hungry’? The implication is that the frustration of poor nations causes war. In fact that the notion that poverty causes war doesn’t wash. Poverty causes hardship, suffering, and death … but there is little evidence to support the notion that it causes war… Poverty is abominable, not because it leads to war, but because it perpetuates human misery. We can approach problems of war and poverty more effectively if we are clear about the relationships between them.”

Ronald Berman, once chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, parsed the language of Carter’s speech. “Where the language of this speech is moralistic,” he said, “it tends to have an effect just about the opposite to that intended: By devaluing our past motives it makes our present ones suspicious. How reliable can policy be which is based upon the acceptance of our moral fallibility?”

In a paragraph that timelessly retains its relevance, Charles Burton Marshall, pondering whether disappointment might follow the non-fulfillment of the president’s high-flying rhetoric, noted that the “distinction [between cynicism and skepticism] is important. A cynic shrugs off differences between right and wrong as merely conventional – a sham, as it were. A skeptic acknowledges such differences as real, but regards them to be often complex and subtle, and refuses to arrive at judgments on the basis of declaratory evidence only. Cynicism goes hand in hand with ennui. Skepticism kindles the critical spirit. Every one of us should be skeptical about foreign policy, because that attitude is what helps exact proper performance from those conducting it.”

Understanding the distinction between skepticism and cynicism is important in any context, but in the field of foreign policy, it can mean the difference between success and failure, between freedom and tyranny, and between life and death.

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