Jimmy Carter’s Modest Quest for Global Peace

Douglas Brinkley. Foreign Affairs. Volume 74, Issue 6,  November/December 1995.

The Missionary Man

Jimmy Carter has won public accolades for his high-profile parachutes for peace into North Korea, Haiti, and Bosnia. But the former president has also been roundly criticized by those who feel he blurs U.S. foreign policy with a personal agenda and complicates diplomacy with his ever-changing and unorthodox licenses of authority. “He is both of the American system and separate from it,” a human rights activist in Haiti complained earlier this year. “I just don’t get it. In September [1994] he came as a representative of President Clinton. Now it’s February, and he claims just to be a university professor. To me he is an unguided missile.”

The press, meanwhile, has either mythologized Carter and his accomplishments, painting him as a 70-year-old “peace outlaw” who prevails through his personal wisdom, inner drive, selfless style, and uncanny timing, or caricatured him as a vain and sanctimonious interloper searching for political redemption via a Nobel Peace Prize. Such concerns about Carter’s last-resort diplomacy, particularly in the Balkan war, may say more about the inadequacies of America’s post-Cold War foreign policy than about Jimmy Carter.

His critics have too often overlooked the preparations that have underpinned his diplomacy. Using the Camp David accords as a model of successful peace negotiation, Carter has worked hard to master conflict resolution theory and election monitoring, digesting mountains of information from an array of foreign policy and economic experts, many of whom were eventually employed by his center in Atlanta. The wide-ranging projects of the Carter Center itself have been made possible by his organizational and fundraising talents, attributes often overlooked in the continuing fascination with his personality.

Carter has been involved in the diplomacy of an impressive list of foreign disputes, civil wars, and political transitions in recent years, including Panama, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, North Korea, Haiti, and Bosnia. He has helped mediate and observe elections in Panama (1989), Nicaragua (1989-90), Haiti (1987 1990), the Dominican Republic (1990), Suriname (1991), Guyana (1990-92), Paraguay (1993), and Mexico (1992-1994) But why has Jimmy Carter been invited to such places? And why has he so often succeeded? A central reason for his appeal as an international mediator is his Baptist-missionary sensibility and honestbroker integrity. Carter also possesses an ability to disarm people dictators and rebel leaders alike—with his empathy, lack of pretense, and, in the eyes of critics, overly generous grants of respect. For instance, amid tense negotiations over the transfer of power in Haiti, Carter invited Lieutenant General Raoul Cedras to address his Sunday school class in Plains, Georgia.

On every diplomatic mission he has undertaken, save Bosnia last December, Carter has prepared with zeal, learning details about the personalities and political factions with which he would be dealing and, when necessary, reviewing the relevant language of U.N. resolutions and U.S. diplomatic statements. It is the Christian engineer’s approach to problem-solving, a high-octane blend of staggering optimism, tireless determination, and pragmatic precision.

In public remarks Carter makes it clear that he favors neither side in a dispute, that his sole objective is to avert or stop war; his scrupulous neutrality is a key to his mediating strategy, and for the most part it has worked well. Before the Panamanian elections in 1989, when the State Department announced that it believed President Manuel Noriega would not hold fair elections, Carter publicly disagreed, taking the corrupt general at his word. When it turned out that Noriega’s cronies had indeed tampered with the elections, Carter denounced them as fraudulent. He was believed throughout Latin America because he had not promoted a preelection agenda.

From a Hilltop

The Carter Center, built on a small rise from which General William Tecumseh Sherman watched Atlanta burn to ashes in 1864, has served as Carter’s headquarters since the mid-1980s. Created without a strictly defined mission, the center evolved around the desires of Jimmy Carter, particularly several foreign policy items in his unfinished presidential agenda. Growing in all directions, like the kudzu that blankets rural Georgia, the Carter Center is clearly not a textbook example of how to build a public policy institute—but little that Carter has ever said or done conforms to convention. Although unorthodox in approach, Carter has proven successful at both integrating himself with Emory University and raising vast sums of nonprofit revenue. In 1994 the center raised $42 million from more than 100,000 donors, primarily through direct mail solicitation and grants from major foundations such as the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The center’s initiatives fall into three broad policy areas: international democratization and development, global and domestic health, and urban revitalization. Carter takes care not to duplicate the efforts of others in these fields. “If the United Nations, the United States government, the World Bank, or a major university is making good progress on a problem, we do not compete with them,” he has noted. Since the U.N. mandate limits that organization’s intercession in the internal affairs of member states, the Carter Center has moved to fill the void.

The center has benefited from the end of the Cold War. As the major powers of the Eastern and Western blocs scaled back their heavy-handed involvement in the Third World, the Carter Center entered, employing little more than the light touch of reconciliation and humanitarian aid. Its flexibility and relative freedom from political baggage have enabled it to act quickly to meet new challenges. It has been willing to take on hardship cases that nobody else will touch, undaunted at being associated with international pariahs such as Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad or Cuba’s aging caudillo Fidel Castro, unafraid of initiating health care programs in African villages.

Conflict resolution, which today accounts for about 10 percent of the center’s agenda but garners 90 percent of the headlines, falls under the auspices of the International Negotiation Network. The INN was created in as a branch of the center after Carter met in Atlanta with the heads of the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the Commonwealth of Nations to discuss dispute resolution and effective third-party mediation for less-developed countries.

The INN monitors intelligence information and wire reports daily to provide advice or assistance to resolve civil wars and international disputes, be they in Angola or Azerbaijan, the Korean Peninsula or Kosovo. In the past, Carter has been able to enlist the aid of such illustrious peacemakers as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, and human rights advocate Elie Wiesel. In 1990, Carter began working closely with Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, to create the Commission on Radio and Television. The commission works to develop models of fair media coverage of elections for nations in which freedom of the press is a novelty. The program has since been embraced by Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

The INN has also been branching out into third-party diplomacy, a project that grew out of hosting peace talks between the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian government in 1989. Since 1986, when he began working on an agricultural efficiency program that has helped increase wheat yields by 500 percent, Carter has been the leading promoter of peace in Africa’s largest nation, Sudan. This past spring his efforts culminated in a cease-fire between the two main feuding factions there.

The Moral Realist

While many respect Carter for his style of third-party diplomacy, he has been the subject of continuing commentary about his “complex nature” and “oversized ego,” his “self-righteousness” and “peace at any price” philosophy. The right reviles Carter for the Panama Canal treaties and his long association with human rights efforts, while the left deplores his dealing with dictators. Professional diplomats and policy analysts, trained to be cautious and circumspect, feel alienated by Carter’s moralistic approach to conflict resolution.

Few doubt Carter’s noble intentions, but critics argue that mixing bedrock Christian faith with global peace politics inadvertently appeases dictators and undermines U.S. foreign policy “Jimmy Carter is a missionary man,” former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has noted. “This is sincere and this can cause problems.” As political scientist Erwin C. Hargrove explains, “Carter transcends his church’s orthodoxy in that his faith inspired him to throw himself into the world’s battles… Southern Baptists believe that with God all things are possible, that God will triumph, and Carter joined his secular political ideology to this religious optimism.”

While Carter is busy listening to international undesirables, his well-known personal distrust of most American politicians scarcely helps him cultivate new friendships in Washington. His proclivity to cast himself as the supreme anti-politician is one reason that his sincerity is at times interpreted as arrogance, his tenacity as unrealistic stubbornness. A prime example of Carter’s insistence on his rectitude can be seen in his November 20, 1990, letter to members of the U.N. Security Council just before the Persian Gulf War erupted, attempting to thwart the Bush administration’s request for U.N. authorization of hostilities against Iraq. President Bush’s criterion for proceeding with a war was the exhaustion of “good faith talks,” and Carter placed his interpretation of that standard above the administration’s. He still maintains, “There were never any good faith talks, as a matter of fact, and we attacked Iraq without them.” The purpose of Carter’s controversial letter, a copy of which he sent Bush, was to urge the United Nations to explore a negotiated solution further before choosing war. Critics saw the letter as interfering with official American policy during a moment of extreme international tension. “I recognized his right to speak out,” Bush recently noted. “What I violently disagreed with was his writing to heads of foreign governments, urging them to stand against what we were trying to do in the U.N.”

Carter’s Christian belief in the power of moral suasion in diplomacy makes many seasoned foreign policy analysts uncomfortable. To them, Jimmy Carter is like a warmed-over Woodrow Wilson without official authority; they disparage his efforts, no matter how successful, on the grounds of power principles and the sanctity of government. In their estimate he is an appeaser and a loose cannon rather than a peacemaker and a statesman.

Carter believes his objective is to prevent more suffering, not judge which side in a civil war is more guilty of past atrocities. “The problem with Carter is that he prefers stability to justice,” a spokesperson for Amnesty International has noted. Carter’s answer to this common criticism is simple: justice can prevail only once order has been established. Carter has argued, “The Nuremberg trials could not have taken place while the Second World War was raging.” The way U.S. foreign policy tends to demonize one faction in a civil war often annoys him. “We select a favorite side in a dispute and that side becomes angelic and the other side becomes satanic,” Carter recently lamented. “This all-white or all-black orientation is usually not true. In most cases, both sides are guilty of atrocities.”

Carter is well aware that from a traditional perspective his diplomatic principles can appear to be at cross-purposes, that he is perceived both as an international human rights advocate who judges the moral goodness of actions and as a cold-blooded realist. In truth, Carter is like a scientist, interested only in results. He is compelled to follow an apparently contradictory approach to peacemaking because he desires the cessation of human rights violations and civil wars. He is more interested in healing and forgiveness than retribution and bloodshed.

Ready-Fire-Aim

Differences between Clinton and his administration and Carter and his center fester, even though Carter has been asked to intervene in several crises. Part of the problem is that the president’s political advisers, who pegged Carter as a liability during the 1992 campaign, continue to believe it unwise for Clinton to be close to someone whom much of America still perceives as a one-term loser. Moreover, when a former president of the United States deals with foreign governments, they may confuse his role as a principal in a private undertaking with that of an agent of the U.S. government. For this reason, and because former presidents command media attention, Carter’s detractors in the White House and State Department see his global peacekeeping efforts as international meddling. Only after ignoring strong objections from Secretary of State Warren Christopher did the president grant Carter his long-sought permission to intervene in North Korea and Haiti; in both cases, the outcome was successful.

Although private citizen Carter habitually notifies the State Department before embarking on an international sojourn and shares with them his written reports on his trips, he at times seems bent on one-upmanship, on informing instead of consulting. And while Carter goes out of his way to brief the White House on his intentions and receives sotto voce negotiating clearance from the State Department, many still assume incorrectly that he is acting alone. Even close friends sometimes joke that his approach to world affairs is “ready-fire-aim.” The Clinton administration has made only halfhearted attempts to dispel that myth. Carter has occasionally gone beyond his mandate in negotiations. He admitted doing so on his 1994 Pyongyang mission, telling one interviewer, “In the case of North Korea, I made one mistake by telling Kim Il Sung that in my opinion sanctions would not be imposed on North Korea.” It happened again when he stayed past his official deadline in Haiti, stubbornly refusing to flee stayed until he reached an agreement with General Cedras

Clearly, some of the strains between the Clinton administration and Carter can be laid at the former president’s feet. He has criticized the White House for its handling of the Whitewater affair, rebuked Clinton for ignoring him early in the administration’s tenure, expressed disappointment with the State Department for opposing his entrance into the diplomatic fray in Haiti and North Korea, and ridiculed the Clinton White House for favoring Yeltsin over other Russian leaders. He seems to relish tweaking both the White House and the Washington press corps. Often his most interesting reflections on his peacekeeping missions occur not at Foggy Bottom, the Washington Press Club, or a National Security Council meeting but on CNN or in the preamble to his Sunday Bible class at the Maranatha Baptist Church of Plains, Georgia.

For its part, the Clinton administration has not overtaxed the art of preventive diplomacy in dealing with Carter. Administration officials neglect to keep Carter properly briefed on world affairs. They have often treated him shabbily, as when no one from the State Department or the White House was sent to greet the former president upon his return from North Korea.

The Carter Center worked closely and productively with the Bush administration. Secretary of State James Baker went out of his way to keep Carter abreast of a wide range of pressing international issues. In contrast, senior Clinton administration officials rarely seek advice or expertise from Carter and his team. Warren Christopher and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake take note of the Carter Center only when Carter’s activities attract media attention, such as when CNN reported that he might accompany Costa Rican Nobel laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez to mediate the Ecuador-Peru border dispute or that he had spoken to Yasir Arafat on the phone about the Middle East peace process. Following Carter’s successful September 1994 intervention in Haiti, Warren Christopher, who had served on the Carter Center’s board of advisers prior to becoming secretary of state and was the keynote speaker at its opening, journeyed to Plains in an attempt to patch up their deteriorating friendship. Unfortunately, despite outward cordiality, the two have not overcome their differences concerning mediation issues. Christopher, who handled legal work for the Carter Center until October 1992, has wanted to make it clear that he is being retained by only one presidential client, Bill Clinton. But he has alienated Carter by not returning his telephone calls or visiting him in Atlanta.

Bigger Than Smallpox

Carters postpresidential legacy may ultimately center on the achievements of his Global 2000 program, an agriculture and health care initiative created in July 1985 at a conference on African famine relief. Global 2000 has its roots in the findings of a 1977 federal commission that charted horrific trends in population growth and environmental degradation. Propelled by the technical expertise of Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, architect of the green revolution in India, Pakistan, and China, and William Foege, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—both of whom Carter considers personal heroes—Global 2000 seeks to improve living conditions in more than 20 impoverished nations by promoting food self-reliance, improving health care, sponsoring reforestation efforts, and encouraging sound population policies. The program is now operating in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Uganda.

Global 2000’S problem-solving methods have drawn financial support from a variety of unexpected sources. John Moores, a Texas computer mogul and owner of the San Diego Padres, wanted to get involved in a cost-effective, high-tech, feel-good project that promised results. With the Carter Center he shared a desire to wipe out river blindness, the third leading cause of vision loss in Africa and Latin America. In 1987, pharmaceutical giant Merck joined forces with the Carter Center in an enormous eradication effort, donating 29 million tablets of Mectizan; a single dose of the drug prevents river blindness for a year. The gift was worth about $80 million. To uphold its end of the bargain, the Carter Center agreed to develop a global protocol for the distribution of Mectizan. So impressed was Moores with the center’s river blindness and guinea worm disease initiatives that in June 1994 he pledged $25 million to the center; he now sits on its board of trustees.

The most remarkable program of those under the Global 2000 umbrella is the effort to eradicate guinea worm disease by the end of the century. It would be only the second disease affecting human beings to have been eliminated, the first being smallpox. Guinea worm disease can be prevented simply by filtering drinking water. Nevertheless, at the time of the Carter Center initiative eight years ago, three million people in India, Pakistan, Yemen, and 16 African countries had fallen victim to the “fiery serpent.” Global 2000 works with local health workers to identify infected villages and teach residents how to strain their drinking water using special cloth filters. In highly contaminated areas, water may be treated with low concentrations of a nontoxic larvicide, provided free by American Cyanamid. Drilling wells to improve drinking water systems also helps stop guinea worm and other waterborne diseases. Due largely to the Carter Center’s efforts, the number of guinea worm cases reported worldwide has dropped from nearly l,000,000 in 1989 to about 100,000 in 1994.

Despite his accomplishments and those of his center, Jimmy Carter remains a controversial and, to some, contradictory figure, unlikely to be fully understood or appreciated in his lifetime. Yet he will leave the world better off and, through the Carter Center, is creating a lasting institutional legacy that may be judged the most significant accomplishment of his entire career.