In this human-rights-friendly environment, Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976. Carter has justly received much attention for emphasizing human rights as part of his administration's diplomacy; he did not, however, invent the issue. Gaddis Smith has, along with other writers, shown that, in Smith's words, "Carter joined the crusade and made it his own." The principle impetus came from Congress, to the point that even such a strong supporter of human rights as Carter found himself arguing that Congress took human rights considerations too far. Still, Carter was more committed to promoting human rights than any other president into the early twenty-first century, in both words and action. As he wrote in his memoirs, "Our country has been strongest and most effective when morality and a commitment to freedom and democracy have been most clearly emphasized in our foreign policy."
Having grown up in the rural segregated South, Carter linked the issue of civil rights for African Americans with the promotion of human rights abroad and cited President Truman, of all the recent presidents, as "the strongest and most effective advocate of human rights on an international scale." He acknowledged problems with the nation's past conduct, admitting that "much of the time we failed to exhibit as an American characteristic the idealism of Jefferson or Wilson," but he rejected the accepted wisdom that the nation had to choose between realism and morality: "To me, the demonstration of American idealism was a practical and realistic approach to foreign affairs, and moral principles were the best foundation for the exertion of American power and influence." His secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, concurred fully in the need to promote human rights; even National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, himself more in tune with the geopolitical and strategic mind-set of Henry Kissinger than were Carter or Vance, conceded in his memoirs that "a major emphasis on human rights as a component of U.S. foreign policy would advance America's global interests by demonstrating to the emerging nations of the Third World the reality of our democratic system, in sharp contrast to the political system and practices of our adversaries."
Carter understood the inconsistency in the nation's past talk about human rights when considered alongside its efforts to deny rights to some of its own citizens. In his memoirs, he acknowledged that "I know perhaps as well as anyone that our own ideals in the area of human rights have not always been attained in the United States, but the American people have an abiding commitment to the full realization of these ideals." The problem for Carter was that despite his efforts to ensure that the nation's commitment to human rights was total and unconditional, he like his predecessors (and successors) had to deal with the international situation as it was, not as he wanted it to be. Thus, while he criticized certain governments, including the Soviet Union and the military regime in Argentina, for violating their people's basic human rights, he laid himself open to charges of inconsistency, if not hypocrisy, by ignoring violations in strategically vital allies like Iran, the Philippines, and South Korea.
Still, Carter made human rights a public commitment for his administration, in contrast to many of his predecessors. Speaking before the United Nations on 17 March 1977, he told the delegates, "The basic thrust of human affairs points toward a more universal demand for fundamental human rights. The United States has a historical birthright to be associated with this process." Secretary of State Vance spoke on 30 April 1977 at the University of Georgia School of Law on the integrity of the person, the fulfillment of basic needs, and classical civil and political liberties that required protection. Vance raised certain questions that needed to be asked when investigating human rights in other nations: What were the specifics of the human rights situation under examination? What were the prospects for effective action to bring about change? What were the historical and other perspectives needed to evaluate the situation reasonably? He also offered a slightly tempered sense of what could be expected: "We must always keep in mind the limits of our power and of our wisdom. A sure formula for defeat of our goals would be a rigid, hubristic attempt to impose our values on others."
President Carter followed on 22 May 1977 with a commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, where he outlined his administration's premises for the nation's diplomacy. The first item that he mentioned was human rights: "We have reaffirmed America's commitment to human rights as a fundamental tenet of our foreign policy," he stated.
Carter followed these words with deeds. First, on 1 June 1977 he signed the American Convention on Human Rights, an agreement that was reached between the United States and the other nations of the Western Hemisphere seven and one-half years before on 22 November 1969 but not officially endorsed by either Presidents Nixon or Ford. Second, although it was Congress that mandated so many of the changes that led to greater attention being paid to human rights during the 1970s, it was Jimmy Carter who appointed an assistant secretary of state for human rights effective August 1977. His choice for the post was Patricia M. Derian, an aggressive advocate for civil rights albeit lacking diplomatic experience. That, however, did not cause her to back down from confrontations with seasoned diplomats, She repeatedly clashed with more traditionally minded State Department personnel, like Assistant Secretary Richard Holbrooke on East Asian issues or Ambassador Terence Todman on Latin American matters. Derian did not shape every position the administration took, but she gave concrete evidence of a newfound commitment to human rights, however short lived it ultimately turned out to be.
As international events unfolded in 1978 and 1979, Carter began to focus his energies on more traditional considerations in the nation's diplomacy. First came the war between Somalia and Ethiopia in the horn of Africa, which National Security Adviser Brzezinski viewed as a Soviet proxy war for control over yet another vital region. Further difficulties arose with the collapse of traditional right-wing allies in Nicaragua (Anastasio Somoza in 1979) and Iran (Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979). Andrew Young's resignation as ambassador to the United Nations in August 1979 effectively ended Carter's push on human rights in that international organization. And things only got worse. In Iran, students stormed the American embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and took Americans hostage. A month later the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Concern over human rights quickly fell into the background, and nowhere did that become clearer than in South Korea. When President Park Chung Hee was assassinated in October 1979 and succeeded by a military regime led by Chun Doo Hwan in December, and when that government decided to suppress brutally an uprising in the southern city of Kwangju in the spring of 1980, Carter said nothing, despite his earlier criticisms of Park's record on human rights. Administration officials feared that South Korea could become another Iran. In short, even a president as rhetorically committed to promoting human rights as Jimmy Carter found himself overwhelmed by strategic considerations that weighed in on the side of protecting stability.