When Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1976, he promised a foreign policy that would reflect the basic decency of the American people. In practice, that meant a foreign policy designed to project far less American power and influence than we had done throughout the heroic Cold War years. Thus, the U.S. remained indifferent when Iran, a key ally in the Middle East, faced the prospect and then the reality of being taken over by fanatically anti-American Islamic extremists. We reacted with similar indifference to the establishment of a Communist dicatorship in Central America. And when the Soviet Union promised Carter it would not invade Afghanistan, its word was good enough for our oh-so-decent president.
Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy successes seemed to vanquish the notion that too much U.S. power and influence was a bad thing for the world, much less the U.S. That notion, implausible on its face, became impossible to defend when our lack of abnegation seemed to produce a victorious end to the Cold War.
Yet domestic policies pursued by Jimmy Carter now threaten partially to re-impose Carter’s foreign policy vision of a diminished United States. For it was mostly in the Carter presidency (the years of sweater-wearing and ceiling fans) that the U.S. began systematically to deny itself access to domestic sources of energy. More than 30 years later, with the soaring price of oil creating perhaps the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the world, that lack of access makes it increasingly more difficult for us to project power and influence on the world stage. And, predictably, it is nations with interests sharply divergent from our own — e.g., Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran — that are filling the void (Venezuela is a special case; few expected this this country to become the next Cuba, though one should never be surprised when a country with massive new wealth becomes belligerent).
In Europe, Russia, flush with new wealth and now a major oil supplier, is increasingly able to counter-balance U.S. influence. In the Middle East, our leverage with Saudi Arabia is in jeopardy due not only to our dependence on Saudi oil, but also the ability of the Saudis to sell their oil to China and India. More generally, the U.S. is seen as weakened, and objectively our economy is now weaker, due to its lack of status in the great global oil game.
Carter, of course, does not bear all of the blame. Republicans have had substantial power since 1980 and were never able (and not always even willing) to promote oil drilling in the U.S. or the use of nuclear power. Carter stands out at least as much for his eagerness to see the U.S. diminished as for his responsibility for bringing this about through bad energy policies.
More than 30 years of neglect cannot quickly be overcome. But the signal we would send by reversing our policies on drilling and nuclear energy would be unmistakable. History shows that when the U.S. plays, it usually wins eventually. It would be extremely salutary if the rest of the world came to believe that we are back, in a serious way, in the energy producing game.
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