Jimmy Carter’s Human Rights Legacy

President Jimmy Carter at the White House, November 13, 1978. (Photo by Brownie Harris/Corbis/Getty Images)

Jimmy Carter, who is in hospice care, has many virtues. He was an honorable man who held the country together during the post-Watergate period when many Americans had lost confidence in their national institutions. He was fiscally conservative, a prudent environmentalist, and a populist in his own right. But the notion that human rights were the defining aspect of his foreign policy is simply wrong. Carter was sincere about his ideals, but the mandates of the Cold War caused him to shelve human rights concerns for the sake of power politics. 

For most of his two-year run for the presidency, Carter rarely spoke about human rights. In an attempt to be all things to all people, he wanted to both support détente and criticize then-President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for their amoral foreign policy. The American people were seeking a measure of idealism from their leaders in the aftermath of the Vietnam debacle and investigations into CIA abuses, and human rights advocacy was clever politics.  

But even in the campaign, there were limits to how far Carter would go. In May 1976, Carter gave an expansive speech on human rights at Notre Dame University. But beforehand, he insisted that the section criticizing Iran be removed from the draft for it might “tie my hands” in dealing with the shah. In pursuit of votes from the Jewish American community, Carter did speak at times about Russian Jews who were prevented from leaving the Soviet Union. This was another one of his swipes at détente. Discussing human rights became a convenient tool for castigating Ford without abandoning arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. In essence, Carter successfully ran to both Ford’s right and left. 

As president in May 1977, Carter laid out his foreign policy vision in another speech at Notre Dame. It is mostly remembered for his catchphrase that “inordinate fear” of communism had caused America to be allied with unsavory right-wing dictatorships. On human rights, Carter intoned, “First, we have reaffirmed America’s commitment to human rights as a fundamental tenet of our foreign policy.” What is often neglected is his subsequent claim, “This does not mean that we can conduct our foreign policy by rigid moral maxims.” 

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