Foreign Policy of the Carter Administration

At the start of his presidency, Jimmy Carter and his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance changed the face of American foreign policy. However, the events of the next four years revealed that the facade of foreign policy was all that had changed. Carter brought a new face to American politics, as well as a new ideology; he was a bright alternative to the dismal string of Presidents since the election of Nixon that had left the country in dire need of political mouthwash. That ideology inevitably was abandoned, as the rest of the world did not fulfill the initial hopes of the Carter administration. Carter came into office with good intentions, but left with an acute sense of failure; his foreign policy miscalculated and misjudged. The Carter Administration attempted to carry out foreign policy with an ethical objective, but reality stepped in the way.

When Carter took office, his focus was on global interdependence and North-South cooperation rather than East-West conflict. His concept for foreign policy was radically different from his predecessors: he thought that maintaining a free society as an example for the rest of the world was a more important role for America than policing the world as a superpower. Essentially, he was suggesting that America should have a role in world politics not as a power, but as a society. One assumption made by Carter was that deterrence was a flawless strategy; he believed that “strategic nuclear arms were weapons of denial and deterrence, and their existence made the use of conventional arms less likely because of the danger of escalation” (Spanier and Hook 190). He also acted on the assumption that low politics and domestic issues had become as important, if not more, than high politics and foreign policy. Carter's ideology when elected suggested that placing importance on socio-economic issues was more important than foreign policy: it set the tone for America's model democratic society, and strayed away from the violence and power politics of Nixon and Kissinger. Both Carter and Vance had an attitude about foreign policy, as well was a way of carrying it out that differed immensely from their predecessors.

However, events occurred during his presidency that caused Carter to lose sight of his ideals, and the country to be thrown into turmoil. A general feeling of resentment towards America and the industrialized west was spreading through the Third World, caused by a perception of economic neocolonialism. As a protest to America's support of Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict, OPEC (composed of Arab nations) quadrupled its oil prices; the west was suddenly at its mercy, because the large corporations and “evil Western puppet governments” were powerless to stop them. This action served as a protest of neocolonialism for the rest of the Third World; although they suffered as well from the oil prices, they sided with OPEC in emotional sentiment. The Soviet Union, still concerned with East-West conflict, tried to exploit the hostility of the Third World directed at America. Three events occurred in the last half of his presidency that caused Carter to change his views of world politics drastically. The Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan when their supported regime was threatened due to Muslim resistance to anti-religious reforms. A revolution occurred in Nicaragua to overthrow the dictator Somoza--Carter initially supported it, however it rapidly dissolved into a Marxist regime. Also, a situation arose in Iran after the United States enacted a trade embargo, and an American embassy was held hostage for over a year at the end of Carter's term.

These events changed Carter's ideological notions of foreign policy and world-order politics into a more realistic approach by then end of his term; his hopes for a deterrence-based peace and democracy in the third world were shattered by the hostile intentions of the Soviet Union and anti-American sentiment in the Third World. Carter's initial actions supported his original moral principles - he recognized and supported interdependence in the Third World, and condemned the right-wing dictatorships previously supported by the United States. He focused less on the amoral East-West conflict and the violence associated with it, and concentrated on the societal and economic problems facing the world. His actions throughout his presidency continued to support his principles; he attempted to make peace in the Middle East by resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, and invited the Soviet Union to the negotiations. However, by the end of his term, Carter's attitudes toward foreign policy had changed; the world proved to him that ideology does not fit in foreign policy. Although he began with moral intentions, the events that occurred showed that the realism from the Kissinger era was more successful in dealing with the realities of Cold War than the moral politics of Carter and Vance. Carter began to completely reverse his moral foreign policy by the end of his term, which showed in how he dealt with the hostage situation in Iran. In the spring of 1980, Carter attempted a rescue mission, sending eight helicopters to Iran. However, the mission failed; three helicopters malfunctioned, and one collided on the ground, killing eight servicemen and injuring five others. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned in protest of the mission, revealing the rift between Carter and Vance regarding foreign policy decisions, and Carter's changing attitude toward foreign policy. When elected, Carter's platform was one of morality in world politics. By the end of his term, he had almost completely reverted to the realistic politics of the Kissinger era. His actions at the end of his presidency diverged from his moral principles, and led the way to a more amoral but realistic approach to foreign policy.

President Jimmy Carter was a fresh start for America in 1976, after years of dissatisfaction with the way foreign policy and the Cold War was handled. He entered the White House with the intention of bringing morality back into American foreign policy. Unfortunately, the modern world did not seem to be one fit for morality, as was demonstrated over the four years of Carter's term. His moral politics were undermined by the self-serving intentions of the Soviet Union and the anti-American attitude of the Third World. His attempts to correct the immoral policies of past presidents, epitomized by the Nicaraguan revolution, only served to help the Soviet Union in a cold war that still continued, despite Carter's de-emphasis on East-West conflict. The foreign policy of Carter and Vance was a valiant attempt at restoring morality to American politics, but was demonstrated to be impossible because of the hostility of the world in a state of cold war.

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