The Carter Vision

October 05, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- Lord Bryce, in his classic work ''The American Commonwealth,'' which appeared at the end of the last century, explored many reasons for the lack of American statesmanship. One explanation he found is the lack of any political use found for ex-presidents. It is absurd, he argued, that a man who reaches the pinnacle of American power should, after four or eight years, be consigned to permanent irrelevancy.

Jimmy Carter has solved the Bryce conundrum. He is an ex-president, and he has found many uses for himself. Those who are used to the condition Bryce deplored as normal are now deploring Mr. Carter's defiance of that condition. Some pundits call him a mere busybody, poking his nose into the State Department's preserve and brazenly campaigning for a Nobel Prize.

This carping misses the point of Mr. Carter's whole career. He failed as a president because of his lack of interest and expertise in the domestic area of the economy. But in foreign affairs he was a visionary whose positions have been vindicated.

He was the first president to look beyond the Cold War. In his Notre Dame speech, he said that Americans had lived out of an obsession with communism. He was vilified for saying that we had overestimated the strength of the Soviet Union. We saw his views confirmed when the Soviet Union collapsed out of internal discord and debility.

We often hear President Clinton and others berated for the lack of any vision appropriate to a post-Cold War world. Mr. Carter was trying to forge that ahead of time, and he has the credentials to forward his vision even now. He thought in terms of the North-South polarity in foreign affairs, not simply of the East-West. He saw that the Cold War had encouraged us to retain vestiges of colonialism such as the Panama Canal. In the most dazzling of his foreign-policy maneuvers -- even more difficult than the Israeli-Egyptian accords worked out at Camp David -- he coaxed the Senate into ratifying the Panama Canal treaties, putting our hemispherical relations on a whole new basis.

It was Mr. Carter's serious treatment of the Third World -- an innovation for an American president -- that made him a welcome mediator in African affairs such as the Eritrean war and the South African elections. He has a good reputation worldwide, not (like most presidents) just in Europe. He is no Johnny-come-lately to the problems he addresses. His Carter Center is a lively meeting place for students and statesmen from around the globe. It is not a mere monument to vanity, like most ''presidential libraries.''

One of the oddest charges against Mr. Carter is that he is self-righteous. He is the man who has avoided the national self-righteousness that plagues our relations with others. Some professed themselves ''shocked, shocked'' (as Claude Rains put in ''Casablanca'') that Mr. Carter could admit he was ashamed of our Haitian policy. This reaction came from people who had been calling President Clinton's policy confused, damaging and oppressive (the embargo hurting the poor more than the rich). But we are all supposed to pretend to foreigners that we are perfect.

Mr. Carter sees a new world condition in which we are no longer the righteous dictators to other people, but a bargainer with the other peoples of the world. It is the most productive approach to be advanced since the Cold War ended.

Mr. Carter could have been a prophet winning honor after his time. Instead, in foreign affairs as in his house-building projects, he has taken up the tools himself and gone to work. The way to criticize him is to do things better, not to carp at his major contributions.

6* Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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