Address at Commencement Exercises at the University of Notre Dame

What are the fundamental values of the United States? How does President Carter believe they can guide U.S. foreign relations? Why is he critical of the Vietnam War? Why should the United States not fear a “new world”? What is this new world?
How is President Carter critical of previous approaches to stop the spread of communism? Does his criticism of the Soviet Union resemble other presidents’ concerns about that country? Why is he critical of the types of covert actions detailed in NSC 5412/2, Operation MONGOOSE, Kissinger and Rogers, and Nixon and Kissinger?

In the document below, President Jimmy Carter outlined his plan to reinvent U.S. foreign policy by ending containment (See Kennan, Truman, and NSC 68) that put an emphasis on the use of military force and covert action. Asking what is our “essential character as a nation,” he answered that the United States must make international human rights a priority. Despite his criticism of certain Cold War practices, Carter made it clear that the United States was still determined to prevent the spread of communism. Indeed, Carter and his administration believed that the promotion of human rights offered an opportunity to discredit the Soviet Union for the oppression of its own citizens.

During his presidency, Carter struggled to meet the high ideals set forth in this speech. Continued support for Iran, for example, kept the United States close to a ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah, who was a flagrant violator of human rights in his nation. (He brutally suppressed political opposition and was ousted from power in 1979.) In 1979, however, Carter achieved one of his top goals: the brokering of a Middle East peace agreement that greatly improved relations between Egypt and Israel.

—David Krugler

Source: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Jimmy Carter, 1977, Book I (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977), 954–62. Available online from Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

. . . I want to speak to you today about the strands that connect our actions overseas with our essential character as a nation. I believe we can have a foreign policy that is democratic, that is based on fundamental values, and that uses power and influence, which we have, for humane purposes. We can also have a foreign policy that the American people both support and, for a change, know about and understand.

I have a quiet confidence in our own political system. Because we know that democracy works, we can reject the arguments of those rulers who deny human rights to their people.

We are confident that democracy’s example will be compelling, and so we seek to bring that example closer to those from whom in the past few years we have been separated and who are not yet convinced about the advantages of our kind of life.

We are confident that the democratic methods are the most effective, and so we are not tempted to employ improper tactics here at home or abroad.

We are confident of our own strength, so we can seek substantial mutual reductions in the nuclear arms race.

And we are confident of the good sense of American people, and so we let them share in the process of making foreign policy decisions. We can thus speak with the voices of 215 million, and not just of an isolated handful.

Democracy’s great recent successes – in India, Portugal, Spain, Greece1 – show that our confidence in this system is not misplaced. Being confident of our own future, we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear. I’m glad that that’s being changed.

For too many years, we’ve been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs. We’ve fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is better quenched with water. This approach failed, with Vietnam the best example of its intellectual and moral poverty. But through failure we have now found our way back to our own principles and values, and we have regained our lost confidence.

By the measure of history, our Nation’s 200 years are very brief, and our rise to world eminence is briefer still. It dates from 1945, when Europe and the old international order lay in ruins. Before then, America was largely on the periphery of world affairs. But since then, we have inescapably been at the center of world affairs.

Our policy during this period was guided by two principles: a belief that Soviet expansion was almost inevitable but that it must be contained, and the corresponding belief in the importance of an almost exclusive alliance among non-Communist nations on both sides of the Atlantic. That system could not last forever unchanged. Historical trends have weakened its foundation. The unifying threat of conflict with the Soviet Union has become less intensive, even though the competition has become more extensive.

The Vietnamese war produced a profound moral crisis, sapping worldwide faith in our own policy and our system of life, a crisis of confidence made even more grave by the covert pessimism of some of our leaders.

In less than a generation, we’ve seen the world change dramatically. The daily lives and aspirations of most human beings have been transformed. Colonialism is nearly gone. A new sense of national identity now exists in almost 100 new countries that have been formed in the last generation. Knowledge has become more widespread. Aspirations are higher. As more people have been freed from traditional constraints, more have been determined to achieve, for the first time in their lives, social justice.

The world is still divided by ideological disputes, dominated by regional conflicts, and threatened by danger that we will not resolve the differences of race and wealth without violence or without drawing into combat the major military powers. We can no longer separate the traditional issues of war and peace from the new global questions of justice, equity, and human rights.

It is a new world, but America should not fear it. It is a new world, and we should help to shape it. It is a new world that calls for a new American foreign policy – a policy based on constant decency in its values and on optimism in our historical vision.

We can no longer have a policy solely for the industrial nations as the foundation of global stability, but we must respond to the new reality of a politically awakening world.

We can no longer expect that the other 150 nations will follow the dictates of the powerful, but we must continue – confidently – our efforts to inspire, to persuade, and to lead.

Our policy must reflect our belief that the world can hope for more than simple survival and our belief that dignity and freedom are fundamental spiritual requirements. Our policy must shape an international system that will last longer than secret deals.

We cannot make this kind of policy by manipulation. Our policy must be open; it must be candid; it must be one of constructive global involvement . . . .

. . . [W]e have reaffirmed America’s commitment to human rights as a fundamental tenet of our foreign policy. In ancestry, religion, color, place of origin, and cultural background, we Americans are as d