Another Moment with Reinhold Niebuhr…and President Carter

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This is a nerd without glasses. 

Jimmy Carter began his campaign speaking beautiful words describing beautiful goals and beautiful ambitions. The idealist rallied for American votes by painting a picture of a future of true detente with the Soviet Union, free trade, peace, no fear of communism and a dominant focus on human rights around the world.  In the events that followed his election however, Carter’s beautiful picture was quickly taken down as he realized the Soviet Union wasn’t fully on board with detente; he failed to recognize the seriousness of the tension between the U.S. and the Soviets.  What resulted was an even more aggressive arms race than ever before.  Considering this presidency, can it be said Carter was truly Niebuhrian (as he claimed he was)?  I would say not. To see this, let’s briefly review the presidency.

 One of Carter’s first actions as President was a poorly calculated and sudden move toward disarmament; he attempted to remove nuclear weapons from South Korea without alerting political and military leaders.  Although he was prevented, Carter’s lack of expertise in foreign policy became quickly apparent. Carter’s SALT II agreement proved as useless as the first and was in fact a mere affirmation and repetition of President Ford’s work with Brezhnev at the Vladivostok Summit. Carter continued the downward spiral of Cold War success in his reaction to the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops which resulted in the Carter Doctrine and disciplinary actions against the Soviet Union.  By the time Carter left office the relationship between the Soviets and America had worsened and the arms race continued. Carter’s actions were startlingly contrary to his campaign promises.  His attempt to promote freedom and to not be “indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere,” lead to even greater persecution of those who opposed communism in the Soviet Union. Additionally, it was President Ford, not Carter, who facilitated the improvement of human rights in the Soviet Union (because of the Helsinki Accords). If Niebuhr were to examine the events that occurred during this presidency, would he find them largely consistent or divergent from his views?

In pursuit of detente, Carter and his Secretary of State both held firm to the idea that America should have smaller interests in international politics and they “rejected the notion that, “the United States can dominate the Soviet Union” or otherwise “order the world just the way we want it to be.”  This sounds deceivingly Niebuhrian, but the actions which followed were inconsistent. Carter responded to Russian stubbornness by increasing weapon production and furthering the arms race.  While Carter justified American virtue under the guise of a human rights campaign, he needed a massive inventory of weapons to prevent possible world destruction.  Also regarding Carter’s mission, Niebuhr would have certainly objected to the declaration of human rights to be “the soul of our foreign policy.”  He would have considered this goal alone to be pompous and would assert that we,“should be less certain that we know what is good for others,” before acting. Niebuhr would have also said this goal was not cautious or specific enough.  Carter’s belief that it was America who was to facilitate the human rights movement revealed his hyper-confidence in the force of American power which Niebuhr would say is not wrong to exercise, but must be done cautiously. Power, “always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak.” Niebuhr likely would criticize Carter’s lack of caution as an arrogant attempt to write history. Carter stepped away from the cautious Niebuhrian middle in his overreaction over the invasion of Afghanistan when, among several punishments for the Soviets, he cut grain sales to a starving Russia.  This was an ironic mistake made by a humanitarian.  Niebuhr would have disagreed with America meddling in Afghanistan especially because, while there was a fear of an oil shortage, the invasion did not directly concern the United States and oil wasn’t the focus of the conflict anyway.

It is evident that Carter didn’t reflect Niebuhr at all in his presidency. From the arrogant declaration of human rights being the soul of American foreign policy to the actions that followed, it is clear that Carter is less like Niebuhr and more like the subject of Niebuhr’s irony.  While declaring lofty goals of benevolent power and cultural influence, he hid behind the brute power of weaponry and upon leaving office, he left the world in disarray. 

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