It happened today - May 22, 2015

Jimmy CarterOn May 22 of 1977 Jimmy Carter gave an important speech… no, no, don’t start laughing yet. He really did. In the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate, frequently seen to be related in those angry days, Carter had been elected promising a renewal of morality in American domestic and foreign policy.

He got off to a rocky start, especially with the Soviets, who unexpectedly (to Carter, anyway) took the view that agressive promotion of Western-style human rights was so clearly incompatible with, you know, their ossified tyranny that it must be deliberately aimed at them.

Carter never understood why, a curious blind spot for such an intelligent man House. But he was determined to be righteous regardless, so on May 22 at Notre Dame University he gave a moving speech reaffirming his devotion to a moral, not to say moralistic, foreign policy.

Now Carter is so easy to mock that I find my keyboard has been doing it while I was taking a quick break to check some facts. But the speech, and the subsequent disaster that engulfed his foreign policy, underline a genuine dilemma.

In his speech he deplored the “inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.” And while it is arguable that America’s fear of communism was not inordinate, then or ever, mighty few people feel comfortable embracing every dictator who opposes it, just as today we aren’t willing to embrace any tyrant who stands firm against jihadism. (For instance Bashar al-Assad.) Democracy is better, and Carter was right to hail the move of American allies like Greece or Spain from dictatorship to free elections in that period.

Now Carter can be faulted for saying U.S. foreign policy must be “rooted in our moral values, which never change” while being obtuse about evil in the world from Moscow to Phnom Penh. But he can be even more sharply faulted for not realising that sometimes in geopolitics there are no attractive players in a given region or situation and yet a true statesman must act to protect his own people’s freedom, not just wag his finger and then shamble off leaving a festering disaster behind. Carter was, after all, beaten in 1980 by Ronald Reagan and not without cause. He did weaken the United States, and flap his tongue helplessly in the face of malevolent Soviet aggression.

On the other hand, Reagan himself did promise a robustly moral approach to foreign policy. He didn’t always deliver either, of course. It’s impossible not to think morality matters. The hard part is finding policies that actually work without losing sight of that point. Because for a political leader, the first and very real moral imperative is to protect his own people effectively.