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President Jimmy Carter’s Foreign Policy

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The 39th president of the United States of America had an interesting four years in office. Throughout his presidency, Jimmy Carter had made a multitude of important foreign policy accomplishments, including relations with the countries of Panama, China, and the Soviet Union, along with the complicated relations with the Middle Eastern countries of Iran, Egypt, and Israel. One of Jimmy Carter’s first foreign policy accomplishments, and by the American citizens, one of the most opposed, were the Panama Canal treaties which were important steps in decreasing hostility toward the United States (Dumbrell 212).

Carter and his advisors agreed — even before the inauguration– that the canal negotiations should be an instantaneous priority. If the United States did not successfully complete the negotiations, which had been talked through since the Johnson administration, the government of Panama might have created conflict -including possible violent protests- in a zone that would have required drastic American action since the canal was under the control of the United States (Hargrove 123). The canal would be operated by the United States until the beginning of the 21st century, under arrangements that were devised to fortify the bonds of friendship and cooperation between the two countries, just as it had been written under the two treaties signed at the OAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., on September 7, 1977,.

The treaties were approved by Panama in a referendum on October 23, 1977, and the United States Senate gave its advice and consent to their ratification in the spring of 1978, which resulted in the implementation the treaties on October 1, 1979. The new treaties passed, and signed, by the Carter administration and Panama’s head of state Omar Torrijos gave Panama full control of the canal on December 31, 1999, at 12:00 midnight, along with all of the canal’s assets being turned over to Panama. Many other Caribbean countries supported the treaty. “Foreign Minister Forde of Barbados welcomes the agreement saying, ‘I hope that the Congress of the United States will react favorably to this settlement. It has the support of the Caribbean nations in particular…” (Primary Source 1), which benefited the standing of the United States in neighboring countries eyes. Another foreign policy accomplishment of President Jimmy Carter’s was his normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Over the winter of 1977-1978 Carter cultivated relations with Chinese officials in Washington, and solicited an official invitation to visit China himself. However, the president pulled back after his advisor Mondale stated that it was too much to ask the Senate to handle the Panama Canal treaties and any new agreements with China at the same time. President Carter was therefore told not to be explicit about normalization, and that his visit to China was inconclusive. In the Spring of 1978 president, Carter concluded that the Secretary of State Vance would visit China, but he would not be legally authorized to negotiate with the Eastern country, because Carter was afraid it might hurt developing relations with Russia and Japan. The United States and the Soviet Union were beginning to negotiate a SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) treaty at this time as well, and President Carter was determined not to delay any SALT negotiations. Vance was not authorized to negotiate in China but did an outstanding job of laying the groundwork for future agreements. In the summer and Fall of 1978 president Carter negotiated the terms of normalization directly with the Chinese through the United States ambassador to China, Leonard Woodcock.

Jimmy Carter believed that having better relations and stronger ties with China would help bring negotiations with the Soviet Union to a successful end. Directly after normalization terms concluded with China, President Carter pushed for a SALT treaty. By January 1979, Vance had met with China’s Andrei Gromyko in Geneva to put the finishing touches to SALT (131). In his statement following the formal signing for Chinese normalization, Carter argued: “We’ve charted a new and irreversible course toward a firmer, more intrusive, and a more hopeful relationship” (Garrison 86). The president also noted the fact that he shared similar goals with Ding, including “a world of security and peace, a world of diversity and stability, a world of independent nations free of outside domination” (86). By the latter half of Carter’s presidency, relations with the Soviet Union began to change. The United States and the Soviet Union were working together on general terms for a SALT II treaty. Limits were set on the number of total nuclear launch vehicles along with a subceiling for vehicles with multiple warheads that each country could hold. The Soviets could keep their total number of missiles and continue to add multiple warheads to them while the United States could increase their number of missiles and warheads to the maximum allowed by the treaty (Hargrove).

The two unresolved issues were whether a new Soviet plane, the Backfire, was an offensive bomber (if so it would be included in the agreement) and whether the American Cruise missile, which was not mentioned to the Soviets for some time, would be considered a missile in terms of the Vladivostok agreement. Assuming the possibility of agreement on Backfire and the Cruise, a SALT II treaty based on the Vladivostok meeting would have stabilized the arms race while not reducing weapons arsenals. Limits were set on future development with the goal of parity. Soviet leader Brezhnev made it clear that the Soviets wanted a quick SALT agreement, with the Cruise missile included and the Backfire excluded. President Carter, in turn, suggested that the SALT II could be concluded without Cruise or Backfire but that it might be possible to move toward SALT III with deep reductions in the existing forces that the United States and the Soviet Union controlled. The Soviet leaders were uneasy about President Carter’s proposal to conclude SALT II and were also concerned about sharp reductions in their existing weapons.

The Soviet Union later accepted constraints on both Soviet Backfire and the American Cruise missile as part of the SALT II agreement. Basic agreements between the two nations on SALT II negotiations were achieved in April 1979, but an official treaty was never ratified. Final differences rounded out at the Carter-Brezhnev summit meeting in June of 1979 (Hargrove 134, 135). Middle East: One of Carter’s most famous foreign policy actions was the Camp David Accords. After personally meeting with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, U.S. President Jimmy Carter came to a conclusion that he must intervene in order to relieve conflict. The days of September 5, 1978, to September 17, 1978, were some of the most influential days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency (Hargrove 243). Meeting at Camp David in the wooded hills of Catoctin Mountain Park, Maryland, the two strong powers of the Middle East toiled, fought, and eventually made peace with the help of Carter. Jimmy Carter created the possibility for peace between Israel and Egypt. As a result of Carter’s intervention, March 24, 1979, marked the day that the world watched as Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, and Jimmy Carter gathered outside on the White House lawn for the signing of the Camp David peace accord, the first one between Israel and a neighboring Arab state. The peace accord called for Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, which would be completed within three years, a guarantee of further meetings to resolve the Palestinian question, a five-year transitional period of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza which would include the introduction of the Palestinian self-government, and a call for an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. After fighting five times in less than thirty years, the two regional powers in the Middle East – Egypt and Israel – had, with the help of the U.S., finally made peace. Carter’s lack of skill focusing on more than one problem kept him from noticing the connection with various other problems, such as the Iran Hostage Crisis (Hargrove). On November 4, 1979, a relatively small group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than sixty American hostages.

The immediate cause of this event was Carter’s decision to allow the Iranian disposed Shah – a pro-western tyrant who had been previously expelled from his country- into the United States for medical treatment. However, the hostage situation was about more than the Shah’s medical care: it was a dramatic way for the revolutionaries to declare a crack between Iran’s past and future and symbolized an end to American interference in its affairs. It was also a way to raise awareness of the new anti-American cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. After Carter’s failed rescue attempt – which he later referenced by saying “I wish I had sent one more helicopter to get the hostages, and we would have rescued them, and I would have been re-elected”– the kidnappers began to formulate a plan. After releasing women and African-American hostages on November 19 and 20, 1979, the total number of hostages dropped to fifty-three. On July 11, 1980, another hostage is released due to illness. The students officially set the remaining fifty-two hostages free on January 21, 1981, 444 days after the crisis began and just hours after President Ronald Reagan delivered his inaugural address.

The Panama Canal treaties, Chinese normalization, the SALT treaties, and the resolution of conflict within the Middle East were among some of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy accomplishments during his presidency. The two vastly different foreign policy perspectives that Carter brought into his presidency was a determination to attack and resolve conflict and outstanding problems. Ratification of the Panama Canal and normalization with The People’s Republic of China was an important step in that direction. These events signaled Carter’s willingness to take on issues that previous presidents such as Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford had considered too problematic (Drumbell 212). Each of the 39th president’s foreign policies has been disputed by Americans of all ages; however, Jimmy Carter was a man who made the most of his opportunities and followed his, somewhat idealist, philosophy of completely abolishing human rights issues. The enigma about Carter’s presidency, which may never be fully answered, is why Jimmy Carter had become so unpopular under the scrutiny of the media’s eyes. However, with more political competence and a tiny bit more luck, Jimmy Carter might have been a successful second term president.

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