DURING Jimmy Carter's four eventful years as president of the United States, one achievement shines out as his greatest: the Camp David accords.
During a 12-day conference in 1978, he sat with the leaders of Egypt and Israel - who had been in a state of war since Israel's creation in 1948 - until they worked out a landmark peace treaty. In the decade and a half since, the soft-spoken Mr. Carter has kept building on this strength - peacemaking.
"Carter is particularly good at recognizing the human dimension, that each side has legitimate interests, and you have to put them in human terms," says Roger Fisher, the Harvard University professor who wrote the widely used bible on conflict resolution, "Getting to Yes," published in 1981.
Carter is sometimes criticized for meeting with leaders deemed repulsive, like the late North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung. But he sees his work as necessary in light of US policy that forbids official communication with governments the US does not recognize.
"It's almost embarrassing politically to mention it: Cuba, Libya, Iran, Iraq.... It's almost inconceivable that anyone in our government would try to work out a resolution of the differences that exist between Americans and those people," Carter says in a phone interview.
He wouldn't intervene in such areas without the aprroval of the current US president, he says. But seemingly intractable conflicts help give the nonprofit Carter Center in Atlanta, which was founded in 1982, a reason for being. Many of the Center's projects do not directly involve the ex-president's regular attention.
"One of the roles of the Carter Center is to do things that others cannot do or will not do," he says. "If we feel the World Bank or the United Nations or the US government or Harvard University is doing something or can do something, we don't do it. We just basically fill vacuums."
The vacuums - conflicts that don't attract much government or media attention - are abundant. The Carter Center often takes action in such unglitzy trouble spots as inner-city Atlanta or Liberia.
"Throughout multiple programs at the Carter Center - health care, ... planting corn and wheat, we get to know all sides in these countries, and we build up an element of trust. So when they do reach the point of deciding that they are not going to win on the battlefield, they turn to us," Carter explains.
When Carter himself does step into the limelight, such as in Haiti, he does so alone, to take the blame if something goes awry. "I think it is part of my duty or calling as a human being that has prestige and access to leaders," he says. "I don't consider it a sacrifice." r