This week we feature another commencement address that signaled a new president’s intention to depart from previous policy. On May 22, 1977, at the graduation exercises of the University of Notre Dame, President Jimmy Carter spoke on “Human Rights and Foreign Policy.”
Carter announced an approach to foreign policy that would engage international issues with the same openness and sense of fair play that he intended to bring to domestic issues. Instead of defending American interests in a world presumed to be often hostile to those interests, he would pursue a human rights agenda in a world that, he suggested, was becoming open to American ideals:
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. . . .
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. . . .
Democracy’s great recent successes — in India, Portugal, Spain, Greece — 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.