Since leaving office, Jimmy Carter has worked as a roving peace negotiator, election monitor (through the Carter Center), home builder (through Habitat for Humanity) and author. Now 83, the former president spoke to NEWSWEEK'S Jonathan Tepperman about the United States' battered image and the role of ethics in politics. Excerpts:
TEPPERMAN: What's your take on America's world standing?
CARTER: It's at the lowest ebb I have ever known. Our country—our government—has abandoned some of the crucial moral values that made our nation popular with people hoping for a better life. This administration has departed from the policies of previous Republican presidents as well as Democrats.
Peace. In the past, our country had a policy of going to war [only] when our security was directly threatened. Now there's a policy of pre-emptive war; that is, we'll go to war when there might be a regime we want to overthrow. Second, our country has basically abandoned every nuclear-arms agreement that has been negotiated since the time of Eisenhower. We're one of two holdouts on the Kyoto Protocol [on climate change]. And we've failed until recently to make any effort to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors.
How would you describe the underlying problem?
Our country was once the champion of human rights—which include the right to live in peace—and raised high the banner for people to follow around the world. Now we're looked on as one of the foremost rights violators.
Is the damage irreparable?
No, I don't think so. I could write a 20-minute speech for the next president that the world would find instantly reassuring. It would say that our nation will comply with all international agreements ever consummated against torture or the improper treatment of prisoners or on the control and reduction and ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons, and that we will be in the forefront of the global economy and of the world on protecting the environment. Those kinds of things would reassure the rest of the world that the United States is returning to its ancient commitment to moral values.
So what kind of posture should the United States adopt in its foreign policy? Benign hegemon? Humble giant? Just another ordinary state? Moral crusader?
I think "exemplar" would be best. There's no way to escape the fact that the United States is the only superpower on earth. It must set an example that can be emulated. I would like it if—in the future, as has sometimes happened in the past—everybody on earth, when faced with civil conflict or war with a neighbor or with democracy or human-rights abuse or environmental [problems], would say instantly, "Why don't we go to Washington? They'll do everything they can to help us resolve or prevent our conflict. They exemplify the kind of values we need in our own lives." That's what I'd like to see.
Did you use this theme to guide your own presidency?
Yes. I'm not bragging, but we kept the peace—not only for ourselves. We also tried to promote peace for others. We protected our nation's interests; we had to compete with the Soviet Union in the cold war. But we never launched a missile, we never dropped a bomb, we never shot a weapon against anybody else.
Let me ask about humanitarian intervention. When the world's sole superpower follows a policy of pursuing human rights around the world, as you advise, there will be times when it will find it necessary to intervene militarily.
I don't disagree. But I think it ought to be a last priority.
Given the public's isolationist mood today, will such interventions be possible after Iraq in the next administration?
I think, with two provisos, the answer is yes. One is that it must be apparent to the American people that peaceful intercession has been unsuccessful. And the second thing is to bring in the global community. That's what we established the United Nations for. If we can't marshal global support, we ought to look askance at any decision to go to war.
But say the next administration was able to assemble a broad coalition for intervention in Darfur or in eastern Congo. Do you really think the American public would support sending 20,000 more kids into danger?
Not now—after Iraq and Afghanistan, we don't even have 20,000 troops left. But in the future, I think that if the American people were convinced that we were protecting U.S. interests, that others are severely suffering, that we've exhausted all peaceful avenues, and that we have the support of the international community, they would be in favor of it.
So you think the American public still has the stomach for an interventionist, moral, values-based foreign policy?
Precisely. I don't think there's any doubt about it.