Jimmy Carter, from the cover of the book

In libreria

A precarious equilibrium

by Umberto Tulli

25 maggio 2020
Versione stampabile

In January 1981, just days before Jimmy Carter left the White House, many of the president's officials were well satisfied with the administration's campaign to promote human rights. But as commentators, scholars, and the incoming president began to critique Carter's bipolar policy, it became clear that Carter had not only failed to persuade the American public that he had a clear grasp on the international role of the US, but he failed to build a lasting domestic consensus on foreign policy.

The Carter administration aimed to renew its ideological challenge to the USSR through human rights and to persuade the Soviets to ease internal repression in order to strengthen Congressional support for détente and arms control. Contrary to what he envisioned, the more vigorously the White House pursued a pro-human rights agenda, the more the Soviets lost interest in détente; the more the administration relegated human rights to quiet diplomacy, the more critics within the United States accused the President of abandoning his commitment to human rights. In the end, the White House lost the opportunity to stabilise bipolar relations and the domestic support Carter had managed to garner in 1976. Critics of détente, helped by the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, defeated him.

Based on recently declassified archival documents, A precarious equilibrium offers a fresh interpretation of President Jimmy Carter's human rights policy and its contradictory impact on US-Soviet affairs.

Umberto Tulli is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Trento, School of International studies

From Introduction (Pag.1-5)

In January 1981, just days before Jimmy Carter left the White House, many of the president’s officials were well satisfied with the campaign promoting human rights and its accomplishments. According to Lincoln Bloomfield, who dealt with the issue at the National Security Council (NSC), Carter’s human rights policy “represented the clearest change from policies pursued by the previous two administrations. It produced some of the most notable moral and political successes” and was a “definite plus for the United States in its international position”. Nevertheless, he admitted, the policy had also “generated the sharpest criticism” and was “the one least likely to be followed” by the incoming Reagan administration. […]

This book is based on three main ideas. First, it aims at placing Carter’s foreign policy and his human rights initiative in the Cold War context. The Cold War was the central reality of Carter’s foreign policy; the president himself “was a Cold Warrior from day one” who never abandoned anticommunism, as Nancy Mitchell wrote. From his first days in office, for example, Carter sought to elaborate a new SALT proposal to limit the arms race and check Soviet rearmament. He did not overlook the deployment of Soviet SS- 20 missiles, which began in 1976 and ended in 1979, and the need to elaborate a NATO response. He proposed that NATO Allies increase their defence spending. He also followed with anxiety the growing Soviet (and Cuban) military intervention in the Horn of Africa. Even strategic and military decisions that, to many, represented Carter’s conversion to containment after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan began well before the invasion. Moreover, the White House was keen on completing normalization with China, an action to which the White House attached great geopolitical meaning. Similarly, Carter’s proclaimed global and total commitment to human rights was calibrated to the Soviet Union and its violations of human rights. Even domestic politics did not allow Carter to overlook bipolar relations. Controversy over Soviet and Cuban adventurism in Africa, the Committee on the Present Danger, the political storm over Paul Warnke’s double appointment to the head of both the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the SALT negotiations team, and protests over the presence of a Soviet Brigade in Cuba  – all these were reminders that many Americans still believed the Cold War to be an appalling reality.  

While the book does not deny that Carter’s human rights campaign had global extension and impact, it suggests that the Soviet Union was a specific target of both direct and indirect actions. By wielding the human rights “sword”, the Carter administration renewed the United States’ ideological competition with the Soviet Union. It followed a consistent approach to human rights violations in the world, denouncing allies’ abuses and distancing the United States from many of them, but it specifically targeted the Soviet Union. Engaging the Soviets on human rights was an important weapon in Carter’s strategy, one that allowed the United States to create new tensions and fuel political ferment within the Soviet Union, tarnish communism’s image and global appeal and renew the global perception of America as a beacon of fundamental freedoms and rights. 

Second, the book points out that détente and human rights intertwined and overlapped in unexpected, ambiguous and contradictory ways in the 1970s. Benefiting from growing contact between the blocs, dissidents in the Soviet Union and communist Europe found an international sounding box for their demands, strengthening Western interest in the state of human rights beyond the Iron Curtain. The bipolar dialogue and growing global interdependence thus favoured greater attention to human rights. This was an unexpected and paradoxical result of détente, a policy that was conceived as conservative in nature and, oft en, in opposition to the promotion of human rights. This forms the second element of the relationship between human rights and détente and shows the tension and apparent irreconcilability between them. Moscow perceived every action in favour of dissidents as an intolerable interference in Soviet domestic affairs and part of an ideological offensive aimed at delegitimizing the Soviet State, and therefore denounced it as irreconcilable with bipolar dialogue. Still more importantly, genuine indignation at the repression of political dissent became a weapon in the hands of critics and opponents of détente within the United States. Led by Senator Henry M. Jackson (D – Washington), the heterogeneous coalition that opposed Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s détente continuously denounced bipolar dialogue as a “one- way street” in which there was no room for human rights. They made the same argument to the Carter administration, casting a prolonged shadow over any attempt to develop a dialogue with the Soviet Union. This tension formed the backdrop against which Carter developed his Soviet policy. From his first days in office Carter had tried to develop a human rights policy that was complementary and functional to détente. The simultaneous promotion of human rights and détente was based on the idea that the Soviets needed to understand that the repression of dissent was detrimental to détente and the attempt to conclude a new SALT Treaty for the control of nuclear weapons. In other words, by linking foreign policy to American domestic politics, and détente to human rights, Carter was seeking to legitimate détente within the United States once again, silencing or at least containing charges from those who repeatedly affirmed it to be a form of appeasement of Soviet totalitarianism. For this reason, the book argues that Carter’s Soviet policy in its entirety was conceived as a double process of negotiations geared to making the Soviets accept the reduction of internal repression so as to strengthen détente and the prospects for the ratification of the SALT II agreements in the United States. In doing so, the book also offers a fresh interpretation of Jimmy Carter’s détente. Benefiting from Zbigniew Brzezinski’s intellectual contribution, the president elaborated a conception of détente as a dynamic process that could stabilize bipolar relations in order to allow the United States to compete politically and ideologically. 

The political balance between détente and human rights soon revealed itself to be unable to simultaneously satisfy both the Soviets and the American public. This is the basis of the third major idea of this book: the origins, changes, results and failures of Carter’s human rights campaign can be explained in large part by analysing the political debate within the United States and Congress’s criticism of the White House’s foreign policy. Trying to appease domestic critics of détente, the Carter administration overlooked the negative impact of its human rights campaign on bipolar relations.

Courtesy by Manchester University Press