As president, Jimmy Carter proved unable to stamp American foreign policy with his own imprint. Rhetorically, he did succeed in stressing human rights in contrast to Kissinger's obsession with power politics. But his own lack of experience with world affairs and a serious rift between his principal foreign policy advisers left him ill prepared to deal with a series of crises overseas that eventually overwhelmed his presidency.
Carter relied on two very different men, representing conflicting foreign policy positions, to help him deal with world affairs. The first, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, was an establishment figure who hoped to continue the policy of détente with the Soviet Union, stressing cooperation rather than confrontation between the superpowers, while at the same time expanding American aid and assistance to emerging nations. Carter's appointment of civil rights leader Andrew Young as UN ambassador was a further attempt to appeal to Third World sensibilities. In contrast, the president's choice of Zbigniew Brzezinski as national security adviser invited conflict within the administration. The Polish-born Brzezinski opposed Kissinger's policy of détente and instead favored a hard line against the Soviet Union. Carter's two primary foreign policy advisers could not have been more different. "While Mr. Vance played by the Marquis of Queensbury rules," remarked one observer, "Mr. Brzezinski was more of a street fighter." The president, however, believed that he could draw upon each man's ideas in framing his foreign policy.
In the first two years, Carter sided with Vance and Young in seeking to improve relations with the Soviet Union and assist Third World countries. Policies such as the return of the Panama Canal to Panamanian sovereignty by the end of the century and support for black majority rule in southern Africa, especially in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), together with the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, marked early victories for the softer approach. But by 1978, as the result of aggressive Soviet moves in the horn of Africa and difficulty in negotiating a SALT II disarmament agreement with Leonid Brezhnev, Carter began to turn to Brzezinski more than to Vance for advice. The climax came when the administration extended full diplomatic recognition to China in 1979, a move advocated by Brzezinski as a way to bring pressure on the Soviet Union. The result was a return to Cold War tensions, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979. At the same time, the growing conflict between the Department of State and the National Security Council had a paralyzing effect on the American response to the Iranian revolution. With Brzezinski backing the shah of Iran and Vance favoring change in Iran, the Carter administration lost control of the situation and finally ended up in the hopeless hostage crisis.
Carter's foreign policy failures were not entirely self-inflicted. The legacy of the Vietnam War, the rising tide of nationalism among emerging nations, and the reactionary leadership of the Soviet Union all worked against effective American diplomacy. But Carter's belief that he could transform the conflicting views of such antagonistic foreign policy advisers as Vance and Brzezinski proved unfounded. By 1980, the American people had lost confidence in Carter's ability to use American power effectively in the world and were responding instead to the promise of his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, to "make America great again."