A precarious equilibrium

Human rights and détente in Jimmy Carter’s Soviet policy

Author: Umberto Tulli

The book explores Carter’s human rights policy and its contradictory impact on US–Soviet affairs. It argues that the administration envisioned its approach to the Soviet Union as moving along two interdependent tracks that were supposed to form a “virtuous circle”. On the one side, the United States aimed to renew its ideological challenge to the USSR through human rights and to persuade the Soviets to ease internal repression in order to strengthen Congressional support for détente and arms control. On the other, continuing the bipolar dialogue, the administration aimed to promote human rights further in the USSR. Contrary to what he envisioned, Carter was caught between Scylla and Charybdis. The more vigorously the White House pursued human rights in bipolar relations, the more the Soviets lost interest in détente; the more the administration relegated human rights to quiet diplomacy, the more critics within the United States accused the president of abandoning his commitment to human rights. Trapped in this contradiction, Carter’s human rights policy did not build domestic support for arms control and worsened bipolar relations. In the end, the White House lost the opportunity to stabilize bipolar relations and the domestic support Carter had managed to garner in 1976. Critics of détente, helped by the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, defeated him.

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