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Jimmy Carter: The Unchanging of the Guard

The president’s foreign policy is in the hands of recycled cold warriors

Jimmy CarterJimmy Carter

President Jimmy Carter in his private study in the White House on April 4th, 1977.

NBC NewsWire/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

Jimmy Carter had a real opportunity for new directions in foreign policy, campaigning as he did in the aftermath of Vietnam, Watergate, CIA scandals and corporate bribery revelations. But Carter has turned for global direction to a recycled clique of men whose credentials include the Cold War, the permanent war economy and the Indochina War, to mention only the major disasters of our lifetime. Under Carter the old foreign policy establishment has been reborn. If Vance, Brzezinski, Brown and Blumenthal sounds like a law firm, it’s not far wrong. These gentlemen all have the finest pedigrees from an inbred corporate world which has groomed every high-ranking diplomat for the past 30 years.

“Never has a self-defining, self-selecting and self-perpetuating group ever held power so long in American politics,” concluded Richard Barnet in his major study of the foreign policy elite, The Roots of War. Barnet found that between 1940 and 1967, “all the first- and second-level posts in a huge national security bureaucracy were held by fewer than 400 individuals”; and that 70 of 91 who held the top jobs at Defense and State departments, the armed services, the CIA and Atomic Energy Commission “have been businessmen, lawyers for businessmen, and investment bankers.”

Carter continues the pattern. His key foreign policy consultants appear to have been Zbigniew Brzezinski, now national security adviser, and Dean Rusk. When Rusk was secretary of state under Johnson, Brzezinski was on Rusk’s policy-planning council and Cyrus Vance, now secretary of state, was a special foreign policy representative to the president. Defense Secretary Harold Brown is the former Air Force chief who personally directed the largest bombing campaign in history (3.2 million tons were dropped on Indochina during his tenure alone, from ’65 to ’69 – which is 1 million tons more than the U.S. dropped during World War II) and who deliberately bombed civilians while saying in public that the targets were military “steel and concrete.” After the Johnson administration, Vance and Brzezinski sat on the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations, the exclusive opinion-makers’ club in New York. Vance and Michael Blumenthal, Carter’s treasury secretary, became trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation, which Rusk had earlier headed. Brzezinski is a longtime associate of David Rockefeller. Et cetera.

The newest coordinating mechanism of the elite is the Trilateral Commission, which no doubt will become the center of endless new conspiracy theories. And not without some reason.

Every single member of Carter’s National Security Council – the highest official policy-making body in America – came from the Trilateral Commission: Carter himself, Walter Mondale, Vance, Brown and Blumenthal. In his autobiography, Why Not the Best?, Carter wrote admiringly of the Trilateral Commission as a “splendid learning opportunity” and he has to date drawn 16 members of his administration from the commission.

‘Trilateral’ refers to the U.S., Western Europe and Japan, the major centers of corporate capitalism or, in the more polite language of the elite, the ‘developed world.’ The commission brings together some 180 influential leaders from the private sector seeking a unified strategy for avoiding intercapitalist rivalry and dealing with the demands of the underdeveloped countries. It reflects the end of America’s ‘unilateral’ power which grew out of World War II, and the rising challenge of the socialist and Third World governments. It also is a step toward forging a multinational elite consciousness in the age of multinational corporations.

What this means is that the Trilateral Commission has become a coordinating mechanism for the powerful against the weak. The coming decade is certain to see growing Third World indebtedness, food shortages and general despair. But if Carter’s men could countenance a decade of mass slaughter in Indochina they surely will have little difficulty stomaching mass starvation by millions of other brown and black peoples due to the more subtle mechanics of international finance and trade.

The origin of the Trilateral Commission apparently was a 1972 meeting of the equally secretive Bilderberg Conference, an elite gathering of political and business leaders under the auspices of Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, recently tarnished by corporate bribery scandals. At this particular meeting, Michael Blumenthal spoke of the need for new unity to cope with economic challenges. His words fell on the sympathetic ears of David Rockefeller, who then engineered the Trilateral Commission.

Brzezinski, who became director of the Trilaterals, had made the original proposal for a global “consultative conference” in a 1970 book, Between Two Ages. In the book he gives a taste of Trilateral thought, drawing a quite rapturous picture of the coming “technotronic” age symbolized by electronic communications and global corporate systems. America’s mission is to lead the way. “Though it might not be popular to say so,” he wrote, “the fact is that a continental society like America could not survive by merely becoming another Sweden.”

He would like to remake the U.S. foreign service “operationally similar to the more efficient international corporations,” which he admires for having “effectively mastered the arts of accurate reporting, foreign representation and central control” (this was written slightly before universal corporate bribery and ITT’s operations in Chile became public knowledge). Brzezinski also advocated the “abandonment of restrictions, imposed by Congress in 1949 and 1954, on the international activities [of corporations] and on their foreign subsidiaries and plants.”

This brave new Trilateral world means an international centralization of power which can get a little embarrassing when discussed in public. One Trilateral report, titled The Crisis of Democracy, worries about a supposed “excess of democracy,” meaning such nuisances as protest movements, muckraking journalists and dissident intellectuals. The solution apparently is to have less democracy. The American author of the Trilateral report was Samuel Huntington, a Harvard associate of Brzezinski’s and the architect of the chilling “forced urbanization” doctrine which justified bombing raids to drive Vietnamese villagers into concentration camps.

Brzezinski now reportedly disowns The Crisis of Democracy volume. But its views parallel those he himself took in response to the student and black “disorders” of the late Sixties. Brzezinski once wrote that “the use of force must be designed not only to eliminate the surface revolutionary challenge, but to make certain that the revolutionary forces cannot later rally again under the same leadership. If that leadership cannot by physically liquidated, it can at least be expelled from the country or areas in which the revolution is taking place.”

Brzezinski now tends to minimize these words as somehow “hypothetical,” written as a professor about events in general. Some may find it comforting enough that the man who now heads the NSC, thus controlling the most awesome collection of overt and covert force in the world, says that his stated desire to “physically liquidate” opponents was mere whimsy. Others, most notably those facing potential liquidation, might desire more concrete assurances for their peace of mind. But Brzezinski’s writings, and the whole operation of the Trilateral Commission, seem as ‘hypothetical’ as the apocalyptic speech which climaxes the movie Network, when the corporate head roars at Peter Finch:

“There are no nations! There are no people! There is no democracy! There is only IBM and ITT and ATT and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon… The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business…”

One wonders if Jimmy Carter indeed chose the Trilateral team, or if they subtly chose him.

There is a second level of Carter foreign policy appointees as intriguing as the Trilaterals. These we might call the new generation of foreign policy managers.

The most visible of them is UN ambassador Andrew Young, who only 10 years ago marched through the hell of the Old South with Martin Luther King. But there are many others in the State Department, including Deputy Under-secretary for Management Richard Moose, a longtime aide to Senator Fulbright; Anthony Lake, who quit Kissinger’s staff during the Cambodian invasion and is now director for policy planning; Assistant Secretary for Cultural Affairs Joe Duffey, a reformer out of the 1968 McCarthy campaign; and Sam Brown, the Vietnam Moratorium leader and populist treasurer of Colorado, whom Carter asked to direct ACTION, which incorporates the old VISTA and Peace Corps programs.

These second-level officials were shaped by precisely the ‘democratic excesses’ of the Sixties which the Trilaterals found disturbing. They were always on the most moderate end of the protest spectrum, but they were there nonetheless. Their consciousness was not forged by the World War II image of a gallant America fighting for democracy abroad. On the contrary, they experienced the reverse of those ideals in Vietnam and Watergate. Their Pearl Harbor was at home, a sneak attack on democracy carried out from the White House.

It is too early to predict their fates, but the possibilities are clear. One, the most doubtful, is that Carter has reassured the business class by his Cabinet appointments but really looks to the second level for new policy initiatives. A second, more cynical, notion is that they have been coopted into the tempting world of power and will conform to the official line. A third, and for the moment most likely judgment, is that they are a cadre of insiders who now are moderate enough to be acceptable and independent enough to be creative and critical – and who in a decade will be the next set of top policy-makers.

What bearing they will have on Carter’s policy remains to be seen. The question is what power they will have relative to their senior officials, and whether they will be willing to resign and go public if need be.

There are hard realities which no insider, however dogged and idealistic, may be able to change. The major foreign-policy preoccupation will be to maintain a global environment favorable to multinational corporations – which precludes the accomplishment of Carter’s most positive campaign promises. It will, for example, require a massive military structure rather than Carter’s stated goal of defense cuts and nuclear disarmament. And the contradictions multiply: maintaining Pentagon budget priorities at the expense of Carter’s pledge to help the cities; supporting dictatorships over human rights in countries like Indonesia and South Korea; continuing secret CIA operations rather than beginning a new honesty; tolerating foreign bribery rather than insisting on idealism.

What does all this suggest the Carter foreign policy will be? In general, U.S. foreign policy will not be different in outline and interests, but may become more “realistic” about avoiding nuclear brinkmanship and future Vietnams. There will be a strategic retreat from the ambitious imperialism of the 1945-70 years, and a redefinition of vital interests more in keeping with limited capabilities. Hard-line military policies against communism will become less important than the economic competition for markets and energy resources. In terms of specific issues, here are some predictions:

1. The Nuclear Arms Race
Look for new motion towards a strategic arms limitation (Salt) agreement with the Soviets, which Ford and the Pentagon have stalled. But arms limitations are one thing, arms reductions quite another. Carter will be very fortunate to achieve any agreement on reductions in his first term. He may be able to obtain greater American influence (notably with France and West Germany) to limit the proliferation of nuclear technology – but only by maintaining expensive and wasteful U.S. contributions to NATO.

2. Détente
There probably will be no American-Soviet military crisis, but there will be constant tension: Vance’s policy will tilt more favorably toward the Russians than would Schlesinger’s (the Chinese preference for Vance’s job). Carter’s corporate advisers want in to Russian markets and resources, but this thrust is canceled by domestic pressure to demand human rights concessions which the Soviets refuse to make. Carter will also link détente with the demand that the Soviets stop supporting revolutionary wars like Vietnam and Angola, which the Soviets will also reject. To further pressure the Soviets, and to satisfy the Chinese impatience over Taiwan, the U.S. will probably continue with Schlesinger’s strategy of selling military computer technology to Peking.

3. Southern Africa
The probable site of the next successful liberation wars. Look for a diplomatic flurry by Andy Young, probably destined to fail for being too late with too little. Radical nationalists will probably win in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), having serious repercussions on South Africa. Young’s “Atlanta model” of peaceful progress through a coalition of white corporate leaders and black moderates won’t work because South Africa is not like Georgia, where segregation was a fetter on development and the blacks only 10 percent of the population. Because of $2 billion in American private investment in South Africa, the U.S. government will objectively prop up the regime while doing everything diplomatically to be separated. The apartheid state can probably withstand both guerrillas and economic strain for several years if U.S. investment is maintained.

4. Corporate Bribery
Nothing serious will be done because, as official inquiries bear out, bribery is integral to corporate behavior.

5. The CIA
Carter will limit, but still allow, covert political action abroad. There will be no real reform of the agency, beyond throwing out some Nixon appointees and bringing Congressional leaders into closer complicity by setting up a meaningless ‘oversight’ committee.

6. Military spending
Carter will trim a little and attempt to control outrageous cost overruns. He may even halt B-1 bomber production on these grounds, though Defense Secretary Brown favors the B-1. However, spending will remain very high. The real issue is not waste, but purpose – as long as Carter wants nuclear overkill and the ability to fight Vietnam-type wars, the military economy will grow.

7. The Mideast
While protecting Israel, Carter will want to include the Palestinians in a settlement, even allowing a ministate for the PLO, to improve U.S.-Arab (oil) dealings and to curb a radicalization of Arab politics. But domestic resistance will prevent such a settlement unless the Mideast parties find it mutually necessary themselves.

8. Euro-communism
Carter will tolerate the election of communists to national offices in Italy and France, rather than trying “destabilization” as in Chile. The Carter answer to the challenge will be economic – to pull up sagging European systems via U.S. growth. This is optimistic. Europe will be politically hot since it is inside Trilateral boundaries.

9. Cuba, Chile and Latin America 
It would be easy to normalize relations with Castro, but Carter may see no particular need without pressure from Congress or the Organization of American States. Carter will separate from Chile diplomatically but may well continue economic assistance. The rest of Latin America will be neglected until a revolution happens, which is now developing most noticeably in bauxite-rich Jamaica.

10. Vietnam
Carter will want to lift the U.S. veto of Vietnam’s admission to the UN, normalize relations and begin trade, if he can get Hanoi’s cooperation on the remaining MIA information – which should be no problem.

11. South Korea
Carter will move towards reduction of U.S. military personnel and nuclear weapons. The regime might then fall, with the CIA grooming an acceptable successor to dictator Park Chung Hee, or there may be a radical political shift which would reverberate heavily at home.


It all adds up to some change, but not much. A lot of house-cleaning and catching up with the world, which might not be so bad if we are spared any foreign-policy crises and Carter can concentrate on the home front.

But the problem is that we are a foreign-policy crisis by our very existence. There may be no Vietnam, no Cuban missile crisis, but there is a deeper foreign policy impasse. We have a global economic engine, requiring many resources from abroad, which is on a competitive collision course with other countries’ needs. Carter’s “best and brightest,” to use David Halberstam’s phrase for the fine gentlemen who took us into Vietnam, are on a path through Trilateralism which can destroy much of America, including democracy, in order to ‘save’ it from economic and raw-materials problems.

There is an alternative: a peaceful, humanistic and democratic foreign policy. We could reduce military spending to that necessary to defend the United States and a carefully limited number of allies, and divert the remaining billions to our cities. We could become frugal in lifestyle, ending the need for a wasteful consumer society dependent on diminishing resources. We could tackle world energy problems by a crash effort at solar development comparable to the space program. We could transform the privately controlled, profit-hungry multinationals into enterprises where the public – here and in other countries – shares in the investment decisions.

But this alternative cannot be accepted by the conservative corporate men now holding the reins of power. Ruling out a return to the Cold War, this means that the United States probably will have no new popularly accepted vision at all – from now to 1984.

In This Article: Coverwall, Jimmy Carter, Politics


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