Photo via Primera Edicion.

Argentina awarded former US President Jimmy Carter with the Order of the Liberator San Martín for his role in advocating for human rights during Argentina’s last military dictatorship. The ceremony took place at the Carter Center in Atlanta on Nov. 13.

The award is the Argentina’s highest recognition for officials from foreign countries. The Secretary of Human Rights, Claudio Avruj, noted that Carter took many steps to protect human rights in the face of disappearances being conducted by the military junta. Carter thanked the government of Mauricio Macri, and described his actions during the dark period of Argentine history.

“I am profoundly honored to receive this award and inspired for the future of Argentina,” Carter said. The former president praised the positive relationship between the US and Argentina, and the agreement to continue working to declassify documents from the dictatorship era.

In August 2016, the Obama administration declassified more than 1,000 pages of documents related to US policy toward Argentina during the period (Part IPart II, and Part III; for a summary of 11 highlights from the documents, read our story from last year). As the Washington Post noted, the documents “reveal a near-constant internal tension between U.S. ­eagerness to push human rights as Carter’s signature foreign policy issue, and concerns that cutting off aid and trade with Argentina’s ruling military junta could be counterproductive and might push it toward a closer relationship with the Soviet Union.” Numerous documents related to White house policy discussions come from Carter’s presidential library in Atlanta.

Photo via Patderianbiography
Photo via Patderianbiography

Carter took office in 1977, one year after Argentina’s dictatorship began; immediately after, he cut foreign assistance to Argentina by nearly one-half. His administration also reduced military aid, blocked loans from an inter-American fund, imposed trade restrictions, and had limited success in the release of political prisoners.  According to the Washington Post, an initial memorandum between Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla and Carter began with pleasantries and continued with a discussion about nuclear non-proliferation. Carter said that he admired the regime’s success in “dealing with the problem of terrorism,” but wanted reports of human rights abuses to be rectified. Yet as US foreign policy historian Melvyn Leffler noted, Carter’s policies had “very limited impact” in the terms of “changing conditions in individual countries” like Argentina.

President Carter’s turn to human rights responded to Nixon era abuses and tracked with Carter’s personal philosophy. His 1977 speech at Notre Dame placed these motivating factors at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Yet, rather than completely rejecting the realpolitik of his predecessors, Carter implicitly utilized the theory to justify his approach to human rights. For Carter, “a foreign policy that is democratic [and] based on fundamental values” is not mutually exclusive with one “that uses power and influence”. In other words, Carter developed a theory of realpolitik that positioned human rights and democracy promotion as strategic assets and a necessity for U.S foreign policy.

Carter’s realpolitik rejected the Nixon/Kissinger consensus regarding U.S. hegemony. As Melvyn Leffler noted, the Carter administration aimed to “forge a new world order based on respect for diversity and a collaborative battle against hegemony.” Carter questioned the assumption that preserving U.S. hegemony should undergird all policy decisions. As a result, he opened new policy avenues – in theory and in practice. Carter recognized the newfound inseparability of “traditional issues of war and peace” and “justice, equity, and human rights.”

In response to the new strategic atmosphere he identified, Carter outlined a vision recognizing the interplay between such issues. He proclaimed “the democratic methods are the most effective, and so we are not tempted to employ improper tactics here at home or abroad.” According to Carter, failure to implement a strategy with “moral authority” would cost the U.S. stature and tangible global influence – both indicators of realpolitik.

This ideology clearly shaped Carter’s orientation toward Argentina during the period of the military dictatorship. However, given that the US was entangled in numerous cold war era conflicts and embroiled in a crisis in Iran, Carter’s attention was often turned away from Latin America. Nevertheless, his efforts to press for improvements in human rights conditions in Argentina were not forgotten.