Carter Makes Human Rights a Central Theme of Foreign Policy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

President Jimmy Carter brought to U.S. foreign policy a moral awareness of human rights abuses worldwide and a commitment to fight political and economic repression. However, inconsistency and ineffectuality plagued the U.S. human rights policies.

Summary of Event

In 1976, after eight years under Republican presidents and the crises in national confidence caused by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, the American people faced a presidential election pitting an incumbent conservative against a homespun, populist peanut farmer from Georgia. Jimmy Carter (James Earl Carter, Jr.) was considered a longshot when he announced his candidacy in 1974. What the unknown pretender lacked in national experience and notoriety, however, he made up for in an earnest belief in the moral underpinnings of American history and the American system. Presidency, U.S.;Jimmy Carter[Carter] Human rights;U.S. foreign policy [kw]Carter Makes Human Rights a Central Theme of Foreign Policy (1977-1981) [kw]Human Rights a Central Theme of Foreign Policy, Carter Makes (1977-1981) [kw]Rights a Central Theme of Foreign Policy, Carter Makes Human (1977-1981) [kw]Foreign Policy, Carter Makes Human Rights a Central Theme of (1977-1981) Presidency, U.S.;Jimmy Carter[Carter] Human rights;U.S. foreign policy [g]North America;1977-1981: Carter Makes Human Rights a Central Theme of Foreign Policy[02700] [g]United States;1977-1981: Carter Makes Human Rights a Central Theme of Foreign Policy[02700] [c]Human rights;1977-1981: Carter Makes Human Rights a Central Theme of Foreign Policy[02700] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;1977-1981: Carter Makes Human Rights a Central Theme of Foreign Policy[02700] Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;human rights Vance, Cyrus Derian, Patricia Brzezinski, Zbigniew Young, Andrew Christopher, Warren

Carter had grown up in the segregated South and had become acutely aware of the racial injustices that persisted in the United States more than a century after the Civil War had officially ended slavery. Carter was an active participant in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and in his years as governor of Georgia he had worked for the eradication of racial hatred and discrimination. As he considered a campaign for the White House in the early 1970’s, his awareness of racial injustices expanded into a concern for the plight of oppressed and deprived individuals around the world.

Meanwhile, a similar concern was being articulated in Congress and among the American people. In addition to Watergate, the possible involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in morally questionable activities abroad—especially its role in the 1973 overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected leader Salvador Allende—raised questions about the fundamental morality of the U.S. government. Advances in communications technology, an easing of Cold War tensions, the growing number of independent states in the Third World, and the research and documentation activities of humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International and the International Red Cross combined to provoke concern over how governments around the world treated their citizens.

As the 1976 presidential campaign progressed, Carter sensed the potency of the issue of human rights among the electorate. His simple style appealed to people’s basic sense of truth and morality, and as an outsider to the Washington establishment, Carter offered a vision that his opponent, President Gerald R. Ford, Ford, Gerald R. could not match. The role of human rights in the formulation of foreign policy became a cornerstone of the Carter campaign. In effect, he put his personal signature on a set of concerns that were being felt on all levels of government and society.

It was on these terms that Carter, in an extremely close election, ascended to the presidency. In his inaugural address, he stated: “Because we are free, we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere. Our moral sense dictates a clear-cut preference for those societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual human rights.”

Within days, President Carter began matching rhetoric with action. On February 1, 1977, he personally explained his human rights policy to the Soviet ambassador, and several days later wrote a letter to Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov Sakharov, Andrei expressing U.S. support for the release of all political prisoners. Later that month, reductions in U.S. aid to the governments of Argentina, Ethiopia, and Uruguay were linked specifically to human rights violations. Carter also worked successfully to seat observers from the International Red Cross and the Western media at a trial of “terrorists” in Iran. In a March 17 address to the United Nations, Carter criticized the international body for its inaction on human rights.

In April, Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, articulated administration guidelines at a speech at the University of Georgia law school. He delineated three types of human rights: the right to freedom from governmental violations of one’s body and health; the right to fulfillment of vital needs such as food, shelter, clothing, and education; and the right to freedom of thought, movement, and association. While these three types were not always equivalent or even compatible, the administration was committed to protecting them all, thus taking a broad view of what exactly constituted “human rights.”

In August, Carter appointed Patricia Derian, a civil rights leader from Mississippi, to head the human rights area at the Department of State. She worked with the Christopher Group, led by Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher and including individuals from other departments, to coordinate human rights with other foreign policy objectives. Derian soon traveled to El Salvador to investigate that nation’s human rights situation firsthand, and during the course of the Carter administration she provided a strong and consistent voice for firmness and action in human rights policy making.

President Jimmy Carter commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 6, 1978.


In September, Carter criticized the government of South Africa regarding the death of Stephen Biko Biko, Stephen while Biko was under police custody, and he raised the case of dissident Anatoly Shcharansky Shcharansky, Anatoly in a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko. Gromyko, Andrei Andreyevich In October, Carter made the United States signatory to the two U.N. Covenants on Human Rights. Meanwhile, his policies were reflected in Congress. During 1977, Congress responded to human rights situations in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, El Salvador, and Iran, and to Soviet failure to adhere to the 1975 Helsinki human rights accords. Helsinki Accords (1975) Congress also publicized a State Department “report card” on human rights in eighty-two nations and passed legislation mandating that U.S. involvement in international financial institutions reflect human rights policy. During the ensuing years, the United States opposed multilateral bank loan proposals for Afghanistan, Argentina, Bolivia, Benin, the Central African Republic, Chile, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, South Korea, Laos, Paraguay, the Philippines, Syria, Uruguay, Vietnam, and Yemen.

In his State of the Union address on January 19, 1978, Carter stated: “We’ve restored a moral basis for our foreign policy. The very heart of our identity as a nation is our firm commitment to human rights.” As his presidency progressed, Carter became aware of the inherent difficulties of reconciling that commitment with the complex realities of arms control, energy, and the superpower balance. Nevertheless, the Carter administration continued to emphasize human rights.

Carter personally made all decisions regarding U.S.-Soviet relations. When the Soviet government claimed that human rights criticism constituted an unwarranted intrusion into internal affairs, Carter insisted that Soviet signature of the U.N. Charter and the Helsinki Accords made human rights an international concern. In June of 1978, Secretary of Health Joseph Califano Califano, Joseph canceled an April trip to the Soviet Union in protest of the trial of dissident Yuri Orlov. Orlov, Yuri In July, Carter imposed government control on oil technology exports to the Soviet Union after Soviet convictions of Jewish dissidents. In the spring of 1979, the United States obtained the release of five Soviet dissidents in exchange for two Soviet spies, and Carter brought up violations of the Helsinki Accords in his only meeting with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev, Leonid

Carter appointed Andrew Young, a forthright young African American attorney from Atlanta, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The appointment of a black man and Young’s unrestrained, and sometimes embarrassing, conduct in the United Nations were signs of U.S. commitment to the emerging nations of Africa and to eradication of apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia. In response to the flow of refugees from Southeast Asia, the Carter administration increased the number allowed to enter the United States to as many as fourteen thousand a month in mid-1979.

Throughout the four years of the Carter administration, political, economic, and media leverage were used to criticize nations guilty of human rights violations. Inconsistency and ineffectuality plagued the U.S. human rights policies, however, and by 1980, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution and subsequent seizure of fifty-two Americans at the U.S. embassy in Tehran had greatly diluted the public’s devotion to Carter’s human rights stand and trust in his ability to implement it. Iran;hostage crisis Carter, too, came to focus much more on security interests and the maintenance of a strong military. Although his commitment to human rights in theory remained as strong as ever, four years in the Oval Office taught him difficult realities. Human rights played a much smaller role in the election of 1980, and Carter lost to Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald in his bid for a second presidential term.


Carter’s infusion of human rights added a new dimension to many aspects of American foreign policy. The motives for Carter’s human rights policies were several: to unify the nation, to help those suffering abroad, to enhance the image of the United States, to strengthen the United States ideologically against the Soviet Union, and to do what Carter believed to be moral. The traditional conduct of foreign policy, based on cold calculations of political and economic costs and benefits, was altered, and the awareness of human rights became a permanent part of foreign policy making.

By bringing a clear moral attitude into U.S. government dealings, Carter left himself and his administration open to criticism. It came from at home and abroad regarding inconsistent and hypocritical implementation. Carter was accused of dealing more harshly with right-wing dictatorships on human rights issues. Although he was highly critical of the Soviet Union, Carter allowed his desire for normalization of Sino-American relations to temper criticism of the repressive government of China. The strategic importance of Iran in terms of both oil and Soviet containment, some charged, led to lenience toward abuses under the shah; on the other hand, Carter’s human rights policy was blamed for alienating the shah, leading to his overthrow in early 1979 and the subsequent hostage crisis. Charges of inconsistency were also levied regarding human rights policy toward South Korea, South Africa, Guatemala, Zaire, Pakistan, Uganda, Cambodia, Haiti, and the Philippines.

Many believed that human rights hindered other foreign policy objectives. Although Carter claimed that human rights considerations never entered directly into the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), the SALT II SALT II (1979)[Salt 02] agreement he had hoped to secure in 1977 was not signed until 1979, and then only in a diluted form. Both Pierre Trudeau, Trudeau, Pierre the prime minister of Canada, and President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing Giscard d’Estaing, Valéry of France claimed that the focus on human rights was detrimental to détente and the normalization of East-West relations.

Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, supported him on human rights but placed a much greater importance on the balance of power and control over Soviet influence in developing nations. Vance, while closer to Carter on human rights, was more realistically aware of the policy’s limits. Sometimes extreme pressure would backfire and provoke a government to crack down on its dissidents or prisoners. In other cases, economic sanctions were ineffectual: During the U.S. grain embargo of the Soviet Union, shipments nevertheless arrived via Greece and Romania. When Carter cut military aid to Syria because of human rights abuses, Syria simply turned to the Soviet Union to fill the void.

Despite the criticism, the inconsistencies, and the difficulty of determining the tangible effects of a very intangible policy, certain facts are clear. During the Carter administration, state-sponsored political abductions decreased dramatically in Argentina. In April of 1977, Peru freed three hundred political prisoners; from 1977 to 1980, Indonesia freed thirty-five thousand. Prisoners were released in the African nations of Guinea, Niger, Rwanda, Swaziland, and Sudan; prisoners were released or treated more humanely in South Korea, the Philippines, Cuba, Morocco, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tanzania, Poland, and Yugoslavia. Annual emigration of Soviet Jews climbed steadily from 14,261 in 1976 to 51,320 in 1979.

Carter and Derian both found that officials of accused governments were often eager to discuss human rights and the correction of abuses. Such eagerness was often an insincere ploy, but it planted an awareness of human rights in leaders and diplomats who were often otherwise isolated from or insensitive to the realities of repression among their people. Conversely, the enthusiastic support and heartfelt praise Carter received from Soviet dissidents such as Sakharov, Andrei Amalrik, Roy Medvedev, and Ludmilla Alexeyeva and Yugoslav writer Mihajlo Mihajlov gave a sense of the hope that his commitment to human rights offered to millions of politically and economically deprived people around the world. Presidency, U.S.;Jimmy Carter[Carter] Human rights;U.S. foreign policy

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brinkley, Douglas G. The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Journey to the Nobel Peace Prize. New York: Viking Press, 1998. A chronicle of Carter’s continued humanitarian efforts, from 1980, the year he lost his bid for reelection, to 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, Jimmy. A Government as Good as Its People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977. A collection of campaign speeches, interviews, and informal remarks from 1971 through Carter’s election. Published at the beginning of Carter’s presidency, this volume captures the rhetoric and optimism with which Carter brought human rights into American foreign policy. It is especially interesting in retrospect.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. New York: Bantam Books, 1982. This is the former president’s intimate, self-revealing reflection on experience as president, drawing on his diaries while in office. Carter’s writing style is simple. The book traces the administration sequentially through the major issues he faced. Includes a cursory chronology and an extensive index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farer, Tom J., ed. Toward a Humanitarian Diplomacy: A Primer for Policy. New York: New York University Press, 1980. Farer has collected five essays in this small volume. In addition to Farer’s title essay are pieces examining human rights policy as it related to domestic policy, South Africa, Iran, and South Korea. While useful for the specific topics, the essays tend to be general and unnecessarily time-bound.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fowler, Michael Ross. Thinking About Human Rights: Contending Approaches to Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1987. A very academic and dialectical exploration of human rights issues, treating the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations. Fowler focuses less on personalities and specific cases than on conflicting ideologies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lankevich, George J., ed. James E. Carter, 1924-: Chronology, Documents, Bibliographical Aids. Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceana, 1981. This is a valuable research and reference volume on the Carter presidency. The commentary tends toward partisan criticism, and the chronology seems sketchy and incomplete, but nearly twenty documents, from Carter’s nomination acceptance to his Farewell Address, reflect his development in office.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liang-Fenton, Debra, ed. Implementing U.S. Human Rights Policy: Agendas, Policies, and Practices. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2004. A thorough volume exploring the effectiveness of U.S. human rights policy and the problems encountered around the world. Spans twenty-five years of foreign policy on four continents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Gaddis. Morality, Reason, and Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years. New York: Hill & Wang, 1986. Smith focuses on three approaches derived from the Carter administration’s three prime policy makers: Carter’s philosophy of repentance, Vance’s belief in negotiation, and Brzezinski’s doctrine of confrontation. Generously sympathetic to Carter’s record, this volume offers plenty of specific cases illustrating the tension between vision and pragmatism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vance, Cyrus. Hard Choices: Critical Years in America’s Foreign Policy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983. This chronological recounting of the Carter years expresses the former secretary of state’s tempered attitude toward human rights. It is rhetorical and analytic, full of outlines and personal reflections. More than five hundred pages, with diplomatic correspondences from the Middle East peace process included in appendixes.

Military Rule Comes to Democratic Uruguay

United Nations Sanctions South Africa for Apartheid

Helsinki Accords Offer Terms for International Cooperation

Sakharov Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

Carter Is Elected President

Soviets Crack Down on Moscow’s Helsinki Watch Group

Zia Establishes Martial Law in Pakistan

South African Government Kills Biko

United Nations Imposes an Arms Embargo on South Africa

Dissident Writer Mihajlov Is Released from Yugoslavian Prison

Camp David Accords

Iran Uses Executions to Establish New Order

Olympic Boycotts

Categories: History