Jimmy Carter: a statesman for all seasons

A meeting with the former US president offered lessons in diplomacy and hope for the future

Sep. 1, 2018. Atlanta, GA. Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. Washington vs. Auburn at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
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A few hundred guests gathered at the Carter Centre in Atlanta, Georgia earlier this month to spend an hour in the company of former US president Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter. The centre, set in verdant grounds close to the heart of Atlanta, comprises a museum and library where the 39th US president's papers are held, as well as the offices of a non-governmental organisation that monitors elections around the world, negotiates peace agreements, seeks to eradicate such diseases as guinea worm and river blindness, and tackles the stigma that still surrounds matters of mental health.

Mrs Carter has worked tirelessly to challenge policy and tackle discrimination against those with mental health issues, while her husband has “waged peace” (a term used by his own organisation) around the world for many decades. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Billed as A Conversation with the Carters, the couple spoke for an hour in Atlanta about their time in the White House, their work since leaving office, and offered opinions on a range of issues affecting the international community, including North Korea, Iran and Syria, as well as providing a perspective on President Donald Trump. The contrast between the present occupant of the White House and Mr Carter could hardly be more pronounced, although Mr Carter did point to a common thread between all politicians, quipping that "everyone who runs for office is self-deluded… they all think they are going to win, right?"

In foreign policy, where Mr Trump’s style of diplomacy is defined by shoot-from-the-hip social media pronouncements and firebrand rhetoric, Mr Carter always favoured a more structured approach to politics and negotiation. He has been described by his advocates as a man of unyielding principle. Even so, while commenting on the prospects for North Korean denuclearisation, he did not seek to criticise the more erratic 45th president, saying generously: “I pray for President Trump. I pray that he will be successful in office, I pray that he will keep the peace.”

Mr Carter’s single-term presidency delivered a mixed legacy, but the passing years have seen a more benevolent reading of that era. Indeed, a book published earlier this year by Stuart Eizenstat – who, it should be said, is not an independent eyewitness, having served in the administration − points to the many positives of the period between 1976 and 1980.

President CarterThe White House Years seeks to cast Mr Carter as a renewable energy champion on the domestic front, placing him many years ahead of his time, and reminds readers of the mix of conviction and consensus he promoted in his foreign policy. Conviction, by calling to account regimes in Latin America and challenging those in the Soviet Union and apartheid-era South Africa. Consensus by negotiating the Camp David Accords, forged 40 years ago this month, which delivered a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, even though it stopped short of its broader ambition to establish the "framework for Middle East peace".

Sep. 1, 2018. Atlanta, GA. Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. Washington vs. Auburn at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The former president and first lady offered their views on a wide range of issues. Michael A. Schwarz

Whatever momentum was gained through the days of tense negotiation between Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978 stalled and the accords did nothing to resolve the Palestinian issue. The failures of subsequent regional peace efforts, however, suggest it was closer to conjuring up the “ultimate deal” than Mr Trump’s one-sided strategy of changing the status of Jerusalem, cosying up to Benjamin Netanyahu and cancelling Palestinian aid programmes.

Mr Carter continues to support the quest for a viable two-state solution, even as Israel’s changing of the facts on the ground make it harder each year to attain that goal. It was telling that Mr Trump made no reference to the two-state solution when he addressed the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, while claiming that the US is committed to “peace and stability in the region” and celebrating Jerusalem’s status change.

Mr Carter has been vocal on Syria, most recently in a New York Times op-ed on solutions for the seven-year war. While few in this region are comfortable with Bashar Al Assad's regime being made part of the nation's future, there is an element of realpolitik in his position. Mr Carter believes in the need for a ceasefire first, a viewpoint that is hard to challenge, and then sorting out the rest later, which is harder to support, given the repeated use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons against Syrian citizens.

During the conversation at the Carter Centre, he said that his organisation continues to monitor the conflict in Syria and that he exchanges periodic emails with Vladimir Putin, who has become a central figure in Syria’s present and its future. The two have a common bond, according to Mr Carter: they “both like to fish for salmon”.

He remains relatively benevolent in his view of Tehran and the nuclear deal, another marked contrast to Mr Trump, who called the agreement “horrible” when addressing the UN this week, a perspective that many in this part of the region support.

Domestically, Mr Carter believes that winning the centre ground will win the presidency back for the Democrats in 2020, citing the growing group of floating voters who often prove decisive in American elections. After being unseated by Ronald Reagan in 1980, Mr Carter has spent more years outside office than any other previous US president, and is reported to have once said, self-deprecatingly, that "I am a better ex-president than I was a president." If the present reappraisal of his administration continues, that statement may not not apply for much longer.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National