Washington — President Carter is talking about foreign affairs. It is Jan. 23, 1980, and he is delivering his State of the Union address to Congress. Before him sits a joint session of House and Senate -- galleries jammed, spotlights glittering on the silver water carafe on top of the podium, TV sets flickering all over America. And the world is listening.
This is not the same man who came to the office three years ago, barely versed in federal and world affairs, who thought he could cut the number of federal agencies to 200, who believed direct appeal to the Kremlin would bring on prompt arms reduction, who promised to cut defense spending by $5 billion to
After the custom that the United States sometimes practices -- selecting its national leader first and finding out about him afterward -- it chose in 1976 the first President in modern times from the Deep South. It learned to call him "Jimmy" and watched him go through intensive on-the-job training.
Mr. Carter pauses a minute and the audience waits. He is revealing his deep disillusionment with the Soviet government, and it is spelled out in greater detail in the written version of his address.
"We face," Carter says, "Some of the most serious challenges in the history of this nation. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is a threat to global peace, to East-West relations, and to regional stability and to the flow of oil. . . .
"The continuing holding of American hostages in Iran is both an affront to civilized people everywhere and a serious impediment to meeting the self-evident threat to widely shared common interests -- including those of Iran. . . ."
and finally, on defense costs, where is the Carter hope as he campaigned for office three years ago of reduced arms expenditures?
He says now: "The Soviet Union has built a war machine far beyond any reasonable requirements for their defing declined in real terms every year from 1968 through 1976." He assures them this will not last. Even Republicans who disagree with his figures applaud his promise to increase the defense budget now -- to produce cruise missiles, the second Trident sumbarine, a new MX missile, rapid-deployment forces.
He sums it up: "The central challenger for us today is to our steadfastness of purpose. . . . We must learn to deal effectively with the contradiction of the world, the need to cooperate with potential adversaries without euphoria. . . ."
Looking at the record during the four years since the election of 1976, there is evidence of the resilience of America, and of President Carter's own flexibility, that so much in foreign affairs has been accomplished with so little preparation at the start.
Carter began with a call for a new world order based on the doctrine of human rights, an unconventional appeal to the Soviets for an abrupt cut in arms spending -- an appeal Russsia immediately rejected. He preached open diplomacy and moral approaches, in contrast to what he implied were the secretive and sometimes amoral "Realpolitik" of the Kissinger-Nixon Ford years. America rubbed its eyes: Many had a hopeful feeling that they were standing for something good in the world.
Mr. Carter asked the United States to "set a standard of morality" while pursuing policies based on "decency and optimism." There was a nearly evangelical championing of human rights, mentioned in press conferences and banquet toasts. He delayed the sale of small arms and police weapons to authoritarian governments in Uruguay, El Salvador, and Argentina, where dissident citizens were being abused.
But he acknowledged difficulties. He said: "We have a real problem. We don't want to interfere in other countries, but at the same time there are basic principles and values we must continue to support."
There were signs that the human rights crusade was having effect. In some nations dissidents got better tretment.
At the same time Carter, in March 1977, made sweeping rms cut proposals to Moscow -- a call for more than a 20 percent reduction in both superpowers' strategic arsenals.
Soviet leaders behind the Kremlin walls were caught off guard. There must be a catch in this. President Ford and Soviet Communist Party chief Leonid Brezhnev had approved weapons ceilings at the Vladivostok summit conference in 1974. The aging Politburo (average age then 67) could not accept Carter. It was used to the skillful, suave, confidential, practical diplomacy of fomer Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Not it felt it was being put on the spot under changed rules. The Carter proposal came to it in the President's words and in American newspapers. The Kremlin fumed. Carter significantly admitted that he was himself "surprised" at the Soviets' anger.
Mr. Brezhnev charged "psychological warfare" and said that "a normal development of relations on this basis is, of course, unthinkable." French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing said Mr. Carter had "compromised te process of detente." West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt complained that Carter acted like an evangelist and "formulates policy from the pulpit."
Yet there were successes.
Human rights had been put into the world vocabulary for good. And in the Middle East, Carter's direct appeal -- made possible by Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat's unprecedented trip to Israel -- helped to create a stunning result, a conference between top Israeli and Egyptian leaders.
In Asia, it produces what is probably the most important international development of the Carter administration -- the official recognition of and normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China. This had hung fire since Richard Nixon and Chou En-lai signed the Shanghai communique in 1972. The stumbling block was the status of Taiwan. It had a 23-year defense treaty with the United States. It had a capitalistic economic system and was America's ally. Senate conservatives charged betrayal. The stalemate persisted over whether Taiwan or mainland China was the "real" China.
In 1979, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona unsuccessfully challenged in federal courts Mr. Carter's authority to terminate the US security treaty with Taiwan. GOP presidential candidate Ronald Reagan's rather reluctant acknowledgment of the new official status was helped on by the fact that Peking and Taiwan have reached a kind of accord themselves and are strengthening their bilateral trade to the advantage of both.
Critics of President Carter charge him with contradiction and vacillation in the formulation and execution of his foreign policy. The effort to free the American hostages in Iran was unsuccessful. And in the denunciation of the Soviets over the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan (which Carter called the "most serious threat to the peace of the world since the Second World War"), he first declared the presence of Soviet combat troops in Cuba "unacceptable" and then accepted them.
Other contradictions are celebrated. For example, there was the announcement last March 3 that the administration had mad a mistake in voting for a UN resolution censuring Israel. Yet in view of Carter's minimal experience in diplomacy, and the circumstances of the changed world -- the oil shortage, inflation, Afghanistan, and rising domestic doubt over governmental power -- the administratio's record on foreign affairs is not negligible and in some fields is impressive.President Carter:
* Completed the negotiating phase of the Salt II treaty, which he withdrew from Senate consideration after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
* Negotiated, successfully worked for rtification of, and embarked on carrying out the Panama Canal treaties.
* Normalized relations with the People's Republic of China.
* Supported majority rule in South Africa leading to free elections and supported the end of civil war in Zimbabwe.
* Made support of human rights a firm American doctrine, to the applause or discomfort of many nations.
* Negotiated the Camp David accords, strengthening peace between Israel and Egypt and establishing the framework for possible comprehensive peace in the Middle East.
To the above must be added one of the sternest warnings in history, directed to Russia not to interfere with oil supplies in the Persian Gulf.
This warning qualifies the implied charge in the theme of Ronald Reagan "Let's Make Ameirca Great Again" and in his charge that the President's reaction to events in Iran and Afghanistan "borders on appeasement." In this instance, Carter has been firm, perhaps too firm, some critics declare on the other side. Any attempt by an outside power to gain control of the Gulf area, he warned, "would be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and as such would be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." He did not say at what point military force would be used, in his speech to Congress Jan. 23.
Europeans carped and domestic critics belittled Mr. Carter's handling of foreign policy, but he had one uniquely personal triumph. It came Sept. 17, 1978. NBC News interrupted with a flash -- The Summit's Over! It was the Camp David conference at which President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel Finally agreed on a framework for Mideast peace. Carter had brought them together. Wheedling, cajoling, exhorting for 13 days, he worked out a formula.
Reporters struggled between cynicism and euphoria. At the White House after the helicopter bearing the leaders landed delicately on the lawn under a peekaboo moon, Carter (always a bit like a Sunday school teacher) declared: "Prayers have been answered beyond my expectations."
Sadat replied, "Let us join in prayer t God almighty," and the tough little Begin responded, "Shalom, shalom."
Muslim, Jew, Christian -- they lifted their praise. No one present will ever to forget the exhilaration or fail to hold a residuum of praise for the President who brought it off.
Two years later, the Camp David framework has not been carried out. But no one can doubt the enormous personal effort Carter put into the matter.