Scott Kaufman. Plans Unraveled: The Foreign Policy of the Carter Administration. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009. 298 pp. $38.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87580-390-6.
Reviewed by Steve Hurst (Manchester Metropolitan University)
Published on H-Diplo (January, 2009)
Commissioned by Christopher L. Ball
Jimmy Carter: A Return to Orthodoxy?
As Scott Kaufman notes in the introduction to his book on Jimmy Carter's foreign policy, evaluations of that policy have evolved through various stages over time. Despite an initially widespread condemnation of an incoherent, inconsistent, and ineffective foreign policy, by the1990s there was an emergent "Carter revisionism" that emphasized the significance of Carter's human rights policy, the difficult context in which he had to operate, and a number of important individual diplomatic achievements. Placed in the context of this evolution of Carter scholarship, Kaufman's analysis can be seen as "postrevisionist," or perhaps even as a return to the original orthodoxy, for his conclusions are clear and damning. He maintains that Carter's foreign policy was a failure.
Such a conclusion is, in itself, hardly original, as the author acknowledges. His claim to originality lies instead in the argument that Carter's failure was principally due to his management style. Specifically, Kaufman emphasizes four points. First, he focuses on Carter's tendency to see policy as being about problem solving and, more important, to treat each individual problem in isolation. This led both to the pursuit of too many initiatives at any one time and to contradictions between those policies, an outcome demonstrated most clearly by the constant friction between human rights policy and the administration's other objectives. Next, he examines Carter's failure to articulate a clear, overarching vision of where he wanted to take American foreign policy and why. Carter did not seem to understand the need to legitimize his foreign policy with the American public and to explain why such policies as human rights were in the interest not only of people in other countries but also of the United States. Third, Kaufman emphasizes Carter's tendency to see himself as a trustee for the American people and his consequent unwillingness to engage in the everyday realities of political horse trading and compromise with Congress and other political actors. In Kaufman's, view Carter unnecessarily alienated Congress to the detriment of his ability to manage foreign policy. Finally, Kaufman faults Carter's hub-and-spokes decision-making system, whereby each senior national security policy adviser reported to him separately. This meant both that there was no compulsion for the foreign policy principals to forge a consensus among themselves and that there was a risk that one of those principals would become dominant if access to the president was not, in fact, equal for all. Both outcomes, of course, occurred, with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski increasingly at loggerheads, and the latter using his privileged position to monopolize Carter's attention.
Having outlined this argument in the introduction, Kaufman then proceeds to provide a thorough, not to say comprehensive, narrative of Carter's foreign policy from start to finish. If you need a place to start your study of Carter's foreign policy this would certainly be one of the books to choose. All aspects of that policy, from the well-known (human rights, Iran, and SALT II) to the obscure (normalization of relations with Vietnam and the Law of the Sea negotiations) are covered. If you want to know the ins and outs of the SALT II negotiations and the changing positions of both sides, Kaufman has the answers. Nevertheless, the desire to be comprehensive causes certain difficulties of organization and coherence. Chapters occasionally contain a juxtaposition of topics (economics, the Law of the Sea negotiations, and the United States and Mexico) that is not intuitively obvious and can make the reader wonder whether sometimes it might not be a bad idea to sacrifice comprehensiveness on the alter of coherence rather than vice versa.
A further problem (though this may reflect my own status as a historian who has spent too long in a politics department) is that the book is excessively empiricist and lacking in broader analysis and generalization. For example, when Kaufman discusses the changes in Congress following the 1978 elections, he provides a list of liberals who lost their seats and conservatives who won, but what I really wanted was a systematic overview of Congress before and after, with some statistics on its overall make-up and ideological balance rather than what is ultimately a rather impressionistic and spotty analysis. In general, I found the book to be rather more narrative in tone than is ideal, and consequently somewhat lacking in analysis, which tends to be confined to relatively short conclusions to each chapter. When critics make a charge against Carter's foreign policy, the reader wants that charge to be evaluated and critiqued rather than simply noted. The analysis also needs to extend forward in time to provide a proper evaluation of the significance of supposed policy achievements. To claim that the Panama Canal Treaties were a success for Carter without any evaluation of the long-term significance or impact of the treaties is to make a rather hollow assertion.
The main weakness of the book, however, is the failure to place the Carter administration in the wider domestic and political context. Although Kaufman does discuss Carter's relations with Congress and is always careful to provide a brief history and background to the various foreign policy problems with which Carter had to deal, there is no systematic attempt to treat the domestic and international contexts as fundamental explanatory variables. Indeed, Kaufman is rather dismissive of the idea, noting in the introduction that some authors have sought to exonerate Carter by arguing that he faced particularly difficult circumstances, an argument he peremptorily rejects on the grounds that all presidents face internal and external constraints. That is a weak and unconvincing response to an important argument, and, more important, the failure to engage with it seriously significantly undermines his own claims.
The absence of the wider context makes itself felt in specific cases. Thus, for example, the discussion of Carter's foreign economic policy does not address or even acknowledge the fact that the problems Carter faced were, to a very large extent, not short-term and temporary difficulties but manifestations of the fundamental breakdown of the whole postwar economic order. It was far more than the behavior of the German and Japanese governments that was beyond Carter's control under those circumstances. More important, by failing to take the argument that Carter's failures were due to long-term and structural factors over which he had little control, Kaufman vitiates his own claim that it was Carter's managerial failings that were responsible. He may, in fact, be right, and the book provides ample evidence of those failings, but the insistence that they represent the primary cause of Carter's lack of foreign policy success can be no more than an assertion in the absence of any real attempt to engage with the alternative hypothesis. The simple assertion that all presidents face constraints really will not do in that regard, since it is clear that those constraints are more or less serious for different presidents and that this fact must, therefore, be taken seriously in any attempt to explain their relative success or failure.
. John Dumbrell, The Carter Presidency: A Re-evaluation (New York: Manchester University Press, 1995); and Robert A. Strong, Working in the World: Jimmy Carter and the Making of American Foreign Policy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-diplo.
Steve Hurst. Review of Kaufman, Scott, Plans Unraveled: The Foreign Policy of the Carter Administration.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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