“The Vietnam War, I think, was an unnecessary war; the invasion of Iraq was an unnecessary war… We need to be more reluctant to go to war." In a wide-ranging interview with Mayumi Yoshinari for Japanese current affairs magazine Chuo-Koron, Jimmy Carter offers insight into some of the most intractable issues facing the world today, from nuclear proliferation to the dehumanising impact of war.
Photo: Paul Sharp
Introduction: Jimmy Carter, his presidency and work as an Elder
“This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes. Together they will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.” – Nelson Mandela
Since humans started living in groups, every village has had elders to provide wisdom and courage to others. In July 2007, elders in our increasingly interconnected, interdependent world – a global village – came together as “The Elders” to work together to find solutions to global problems. They are not only resourceful, but proactive, elders.
Who are The Elders?
The Elders were brought together by Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Group) and Peter Gabriel (former lead vocalist of the rock band Genesis), with Nelson Mandela (South Africa's first black President) as leader. The 12 Elders include Graça Machel (wife of Mandela and the widow of the late Mozambican president Samora Machel), Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and other prominent world figures. With a global perspective and through their dynamic activities across borders, they are people who can address global problems.
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They tackle, in Mandela’s words, “the most complex and intractable issues” such as the conflicts around the world, in Israel/Palestine, the Korean Peninsula and South Sudan; women’s issues including ending child marriage; ensuring the freedom of speech; advancing public health; poverty eradication; and environmental issues.
Five Elders were interviewed for this new series: Jimmy Carter (former President of the United States), Fernando Henrique Cardoso (former President of Brazil), Gro Harlem Brundtland (former Prime Minister of Norway), Mary Robinson (former President of Ireland) and Martti Ahtisaari (former President of Finland). Richard Branson, a founder of The Elders, was also interviewed.
All the interviewees are “awesome grown-ups” who have experienced hardship, overcome criticism and have devoted their lives to “bringing about changes in society.”
Jimmy Carter's early life
With his boyish sparkling eyes, tayumi-naku (tireless) and hitamuki-ni (earnest) are two Japanese words that describe Jimmy Carter perfectly.
He lives in a simple one-storey house built in 1961 in Plains, Georgia, a small town with a population of just 780. He still sometimes teaches Sunday school at a nearby church. Both his and his wife Rosalynn’s families have lived in Plains for several generations.
During his ten-year service in the US Navy as an engineer and officer, Carter attended graduate school, majoring in reactor technology and nuclear physics. In 1952, he risked his life to dismantle a nuclear reactor when he was ordered to lead the clean up of a nuclear accident caused by melted fuel rods at Canada’s Chalk River Laboratories. His cautious approach towards nuclear development in later years was due to this early experience.
Upon his father’s death in 1953, he took over the small family peanut farm; it flourished under his business and scientific knowledge. Having demonstrated his abilities as a community leader since he was a young man, Carter was elected Governor of Georgia in 1971.
Carter's presidential legacy
As US President from 1976 to 1980, Carter established an energy policy that cut US oil imports by half. He also had solar panels installed on the White House roof, something that was ahead of the times. Carter emphasised human rights diplomacy in dealing with Latin America, negotiated with the Soviet Union for nuclear arms reduction, and contributed greatly to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (However, most of his policies – including the installation of solar panels – were overturned by his successor Ronald Reagan.)
One of his greatest achievements, he felt, was that the United States did not fight against any countries during his presidency. Aside from the eight people who were killed during a hostage rescue mission during the Iranian Revolution, no American or any other national was killed under the banner of an American war.
Considering that millions of people lost their lives in the wars before and after Carter’s presidency – the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan – the fact that the Carter administration did not wage war on any country makes it unique in American history.
Mr and Mrs Carter – married for 67 years – are very active on the world stage. At The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, activities are steadily conducted to save people from the incurable diseases that affect the poorest people around the world.
He spoke very clearly and articulately with no insertions of “um” or “uh”. There were no rewordings or excessive expressions, and it was far from dull and uninteresting. He did not indulge in rhetorical flourishes, but clearly expressed what he needed to say.
An avid reader as well as an activist, he admires the poet Dylan Thomas. Several of his books have been on The New York Times bestseller list.
This interview took place during a meeting of The Elders in Dublin, Ireland in May 2013.
Chuo-Koron: As a member of The Elders, you have been tirelessly working on Arab-Israeli conflict resolution, and you went back to the region in 2012. Since the Oslo Accord in 1993, the number of illegal settlers beyond the Green Line has doubled to more than 500,000. You mentioned that in keeping the occupied territories, Israel is establishing an apartheid regime there. Why do you think a two-state solution is better than a one-state solution? Why is the US so invested in Israel?
Jimmy Carter: Well, I’ve studied the situation in Israel and the West Bank in Gaza for 35 years. And all the previous presidents for the last 35 years have said that a two-state solution is the best for Israel. It’s also best for Israel’s neighbours – for the Palestinians, for Lebanon, for Jordan, for Egypt.
But since [Benjamin] Netanyahu has been Prime Minister, he and some of his advisors – mainly Mr Avigdor Lieberman – have decided that a one-state solution is better for them. So they have been very rapidly taking over areas of Palestine, and building Israeli settlements – all illegal, and all obstacles to peace in Palestine.
So this is a major concern – not only of me, not only of the Elders, but of many people in Israel, of the Palestinians, of the Arab countries, of the European community, and also of the United Nations, and, I’m sure, Japan. It’s a counter-productive move by Netanyahu. And they’ve done it with some degree of secrecy – at least, some degree of unawareness – by many of the Israeli public.
But there is now an awakening – a realisation – by the world community that this decision to establish just one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is taking place very rapidly, and unless it is stopped by the condemnation of the European community and the world community, it’ll be a tragedy for Israel and its neighbours.
Jimmy Carter and fellow Elders join a protest in East Jerusalem, October 2010
So the idea of the one-state solution is to make the problem into a civil rights problem instead of one of national sovereignty?
I would call it a human rights problem, yes, because they’d be depriving the Palestinians of their legitimate rights as certified by the United Nations ever since 1967: that the Green Line in ‘67 borders should prevail, and that Israel should have its own state inside the 1967 borders to live in peace and to live with security with the Palestinians having their own state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. This is something that is being, now, violated very actively, and it must be brought to a stop.
Why is the US so invested in Israel? If the US said to Israel, “Okay, we’re not going to help you any longer” to Israel, don’t you think that the problem will see some kind of progress, greatly?
I don’t think the US is not going to help Israel. What the US has done historically – this was before I was President – is to help Israel be able to protect itself, but also to help Israel live legally within the world community, respected by its neighbours and the rest of the world as a law-abiding nation that observes basic moral values and that honours the human rights of their neighbours and the peace of their neighbours.
Chuo-Koron: The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed by all but five nations: Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea and South Sudan. Unlike Iran, Israel refuses any IAEA inspections, and has hundreds of nuclear weapons. Do you think nuclear deterrence is a viable concept?
Jimmy Carter: I’ve always believed in the need for nuclear deterrence. We’ve always been concerned that Israel has refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. As you know, North Korea did sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and now has pulled out. Israel is one of the very few countries on Earth that doesn’t comply with this, and as everyone knows, Israel has a substantial nuclear arsenal. Obviously, this is a threat, I think, to permanent peace and stability in their region of the world.
In 2011 you went back to North Korea with other members of The Elders, and you have been working hard on Korean Peninsula issues because of the humanitarian conditions in North Korea. Are you alarmed by recent events there? Do you have any advice for the Japanese government to retrieve abducted and unlawfully detained Japanese citizens there?
My own belief on the latter point is that all of the abducted Japanese and their descendants and families should be free to go where they wish. If there has been any violation of their basic rights and of international law, North Korea should acknowledge this violation that they have perpetuated. My hope is that the Japanese will be forthcoming in working harmoniously with the North Koreans to resolve this issue.
“The biggest problem in the perpetuation of this threat to peace in that region is the unwillingness of others to talk to North Korea and to North Korean leaders… what North Korea wants is to be treated like other nations.”
I have been very deeply concerned since I was a young officer in the submarine force during the Korean War that the North Koreans have been isolated. They have suffered from a very severe economic boycott. The US and other countries have done all they could to destroy the economy of North Korea. I’ve been to North Korea three times. I’ve met with Kim Il-Sung, the original leader of North Korea, and with other leaders there, and what they want is a peace treaty with the US and with others.
We’ve refused to negotiate a peace treaty. They want the assurance that the US won’t attack them if they abide peacefully with their neighbours – particularly South Korea – and they also want an end to the economic boycott. Unfortunately, the agreement that I negotiated with Kim Il-Sung in 1994 called for an end to their nuclear weaponry and unimpeded access to all their nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This was put into legal terms by President Clinton at negotiations in Geneva in 1995. And it stayed in effect until President George W. Bush came into office, at which time he denounced this agreement and called North Korea “axis of evil”. And then, of course, there has been a deterioration in the relationship since.
I’ve been there since the so-called “six-party talks” in Beijing in, I think… 2007. And I’ve studied those agreements quite thoroughly. The North Koreans claim that they are abiding by their agreements. They claim that there are six major points, and that they should be addressed one at a time. The US agrees with the same six points, but they say that nuclear issue has to come first, so that’s where the basic agreement has broken down. Ever since Obama has been in office, there has been no six-party talk and no real communication with North Korea.
Jimmy Carter with fellow Elders in North Korea, April 2011
So what would be the approach that one could take to ease the relationship between North Korea and Japan, for instance?
If I could just orchestrate something, I would say that Japan would reach out to the North Korean leadership and say: “We would like to come to Pyongyang or to Geneva or to some neutral place, and discuss this issue and try to resolve it peacefully and with mutual respect.” I know that’s very difficult, politically speaking, for the North Korean Prime Minister and cabinet members, but that’s the best approach.
The biggest problem in the perpetuation of this threat to peace in that region is the unwillingness of others to talk to North Korea and to North Korean leaders, I would say, with respect. And I can understand how some of the statements and some of the activities by North Korea cause concern, and sometimes consternation and sometimes condemnation. But still. And I know the North Korean negotiators very well; I’ve spent many, many hours with them. And I know, at least, Kim Il-Sung, who was a prominent, respected leader – although he’s deceased now – I knew him very well.
And to repeat myself, what North Korea wants is to be treated like other nations on Earth, but they want a permanent peace treaty. As you know, since the end of the Korean War – now 60 years or so – there’s been no peace agreement, no peace treaty; it’s just a ceasefire. And the ceasefire includes very harsh and punitive economic sanctions against North Korea, which has made it almost impossible for them to feed their own people and to have a flourishing economy, and also, even now, more recently, even to deposit that money in international banks, which make this very punitive.
Chuo-Koron: During your presidency, you didn’t wage war on any country. Apart from Operation Eagle Claw, no one was killed during your administration.
Jimmy Carter: That is correct.
Looking back, people began to realise that what seemed “weak” at the time was actually “wise” and “courageous.”
Should we avoid war at any cost? Or should we be prepared to fight when there is a danger of losing national sovereignty?
Well, my prominent career was in the US Navy as a submarine officer. I was prepared to give my life if necessary – if my country went to war. But I felt that to have a strong defence and a willingness to use it if necessary was the best prohibition or obstacle to go into war.
And so I think that it’s been one of the mistakes that the American government has made since the Second World War – that we have been involved almost constantly in military conflicts, most recently, obviously, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and earlier than that in Bosnia. I could name fifteen different places where we’ve been in armed conflict. Japan has not; China has not; Brazil has not; and so forth. But the US stays in military conflict or the threat of that.
So I believe that in almost every case, the wars have been avoidable without betraying the basic moral principles and privileges and well-being of the countries involved. I think we’ve had unnecessary wars. The Vietnam War, I think, was an unnecessary war; the invasion of Iraq was an unnecessary war; and so forth. So I think that we need to be more reluctant to go to war, and to go there only in desperate conditions when all avenues towards peace are exhausted, including good-faith discussions, either directly with our potential adversaries or through a trusted intermediary.
So do you think that the military section is a part of the fundamental structure of a sovereign nation? In other words, do you think the military service is necessary for a nation to be sovereign?
I think so. There are a few countries on Earth that don’t have any military capabilities. Costa Rica is the best example in this hemisphere. But I think it’s necessary for Japan to have a defence capability. As you know, on the terms of our peace agreement after the Second World War, Japan agreed to limit its expenditure value to 1 per cent of its GDP (Gross Domestic Product). I really favour that. Japan also has a guarantee from the US that if Japan is attacked, we will provide our military services to supplement your own.
But I think the less the portion of our budget that can be spent on the military, the better off the people are, and the less likely Japan is to have to go to war again.
It is often said: “The first casualty of war is truth.” (Hiram Warren Johnson)
In the US, when we listen to news about a war, we know every American – to the last person – who died in the war. Yet, we don’t know how many were killed on the other side.
Sometimes, the death toll may reach more than 100,000, and we still do not know about it. Don’t you think that there a lack of imagination here – an inability to acknowledge that the other side consists of human beings with equal human value and equally valuable stories to tell?
Yes. In fact, I wrote a book of poems, and one of my poems is about that: how, when we do go to war, we dehumanise the people against whom we are fighting. We call all the Japanese “Japs”, we call the Germans “Huns”, we call the Italians “Wops”. And you know what we called the Vietnamese when we were at war with them: “Gook”, “Charlie”, etc.
We tend to convince ourselves and to convince our fellow citizens that the people against whom we are fighting are no longer human – they’re not equal to us. This is contrary to basic moral principles. It’s contrary to my own religious beliefs. But it’s certainly something that lets us rationalise what we do.
In the more distant past, the Japanese have done terrible things to some of their neighbours. I was in China recently, and went to a museum where many Chinese were sacrificed. And I know that there are still people in Korea that look back upon the time when they were occupied by Japan. So you can always go back to ancient history and find a reason to perpetuate hatred or misunderstanding. The thing that we are not capable of doing quite often as public officials is to say: “OK, let’s forget the past, and let’s reach out our hands of friendship and equality and mutual respect and understanding, and find a way to move forward with peace and amity built among people.”
How can we do that? I mean, how can we persuade the other side?
I think one of the things that, now, is an obstacle is the pride that people have. I think there are some political figures that like to go to war, because it makes them look heroic as it was in ancient times when we wore swords and shields and rode horseback.
I had never felt that way; when I went into office, my determination was to maintain peace, not only with our potential adversaries – at that time, it was the Soviet Union in the Cold War – but also to bring peace to others. And I tried to bring peace between Egypt and Israel; I tried to bring peace between the US and China by normalising diplomatic relations, and was able to do so – I was fortunate.
So I think the basic elevation of peace and human rights to the top of our priority list will submerge war and animosity and hatred and persecution to a very low level.
Your foreign policy was often described as “human rights diplomacy”, which truly resonates today. You withheld military and economic assistance from Latin American dictators in Chile, Argentina and Nicaragua…
…also Brazil, also Paraguay, also Uruguay, also Ecuador… Yeah, almost all the countries in South America were under military dictatorship.
Yes! You also tried to seek the release of political prisoners held in USSR jails, which gave heart to the underground resistance movement. And of course, there were the Panama Canal Treaty, SALT II and Camp David.
What were your thoughts behind your human rights diplomacy, which was very different from the other administrations’ so-called “tougher” approach?
I think that the US when I was in office – and still – has tremendous influence in the global assemblies – the United Nations and so forth. We had tremendous economic benefits to present to others, like our neighbours in Latin America at that time. Most of those military dictators had been nurtured by American presidents as friends, and whenever anyone wanted to change their government or to escape human rights persecution by the dictators, they were branded as communists at that time. And we would sometimes even send in American troops to protect the dictators against indigenous people and against our African descendants and so forth.
I thought that was wrong. So I espoused the basic principles of human rights, which are still embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And I think that they just gave encouragement, as you pointed out, to people who were being oppressed to be more courageous in speaking out.
I think it happened in the Soviet Union. We were able, even, to convince Fidel Castro: he released 4000 political prisoners. President Alfredo Stroessner (in office from 1954-89) in Paraguay, in one day, released 900 prisoners, he said, “because of Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy”, and so forth. And now, every country in South America is a democracy, and every country in our hemisphere is a democracy except perhaps Cuba. So I think the human rights programme had a very beneficial effect, not only to bring about democracy and freedom, but also to prevent conflict.
Chuo-Koron: WikiLeaks opened up sensitive diplomatic cables and videos, revealing the truth behind the dictatorship in the Middle East and Iraq and Afghanistan war, including “Collateral Murder Video”, and provided the trigger for the Tunisian uprising more than anything.
Jimmy Carter: I know.
During the Vietnam War, the release of the Pentagon Papers fuelled anti-war demonstrations, forcing the government to end the war. We would like to know what is actually going on with our tax money, yet many government leaders condemn WikiLeaks.
What is your opinion on WikiLeaks? Do you think secrecy, or so-called “intelligence activities”, will strengthen or weaken the nation?
You know, my opinion is a minority opinion, because most Americans disagree with me. I did not deplore the WikiLeaks revelations. They just made public what was actually the truth. Most often, the revelation of the truth, even if it’s unpleasant, is beneficial.
The Carter Center, for instance, which I lead now, has a major project on freedom of information to encourage individual nations to pass laws to let their citizens know the decisions that the government officials make. And this is sometimes embarrassing to the government. But we do this all over the world.
I think that, almost invariably, the secrecy is designed to conceal improper activities and not designed for the well-being of the general public. So there may have been some problems with some of the WikiLeaks revelations, but I think, in general, the forced revelation of the truth is most often helpful.
Actually, The New York Times CIA specialist, Tim Weiner, has said that the public cannot handle the truth. So, he will not print anything which may undermine US policies, even though he knows it is the truth. Do you go for a full transparency? How much transparency is healthy for a fair international society?
There were some things I kept secret at the time. For instance, we developed the physical technique of having stealth aeroplanes where the radar cannot see them, and that was important for our own defence capability, so I kept that a secret. And there are some times when we have agreements with some people within a country that may cause them to be punished – or even executed – if their relationship is known. So there are certain facts that don’t need to be made public.
Then of course, whether we like it or not, there is espionage, there is penetration of, now, the Internet through cyber techniques – this is perhaps one of the most unaddressed subjects. So I think if a company has, say, a patent on a particular process that is legally theirs, and someone goes into their computer system and extracts that information – which is illegal – that’s wrong. So there are some wrong things about it.
But, to repeat myself, back to the generality, in most cases, the revelation of the truth is good.
Chuo-Koron: The Athenian historian Thucydides said: “Democracy can’t rule an empire, because democracy is too fickle.” In his view, democracy lacks continuity in policy, because the voters’ attention span is too short, [Carter laughs] their understanding of complicated issues of foreign policy is too limited, and the people are too easily diverted and swayed by partisan politics, and by the financial and sexual scandals of politicians.
Do you agree with him?
Jimmy Carter: No. [Yoshinari laughs] Well, you know, the US has been a democracy now since the 1700s – almost 250 years – and our democracy has survived. I think Japan is much better off with a democracy than it was without a democracy. I think, in general, it’s better for an individual person to have some direct involvement in choosing one’s own leaders through the democratic process – through free voting.
“The more involvement people have in shaping their own destiny, the better off they are.”
This is something on which The Carter Center works every day. We just finished our 94th troubled election in Kenya; we’re working now in Egypt and other places; we did the two elections in Indonesia, the first time they had anything except military dictatorships in 50 years.
Sometimes it takes a war before a democracy can be established, as was the case in Italy and Germany as well as Japan. I don’t think there are many people in Japan who wouldn’t agree, or in Italy or Germany, that their country is better off now despite the problems.
There’s no doubt that a dictatorship can have a more efficient government, because one dictator can make a decision – he doesn’t have to go to Congress and get approval from a majority. But in general, the more involvement that people have in choosing their own leaders and shaping their own destiny, the better off they are.
Chuo-Koron: What kind of influence has religion had on your life?
Jimmy Carter: My religion has had a profound impact on my life. I happen to be a Christian. I try to follow the examples set for me by Jesus Christ, and they are the principles that have guided the shaping of democracy, the shaping of human rights. He taught that we should tell the truth. We worship him as a prince of peace, not war.
He believed in humility, not “better than other people”, but “servant of others”. He believed in generosity, in alleviating the suffering of people who are in trouble. He believed in forgiveness when harm has been done. Those are the principles that have guided my life. I don’t see any incompatibility between my faith and the principles that my country – and the entire world – has adopted.
Do you think that you could have accomplished what you have done without the psychological help of religion?
I’m not sure about that. I think if I had had another faith – if I had believed in Confucianism or if I had believed in the basic principles of Islam, or if I had been a Buddhist, or if I had worship in some other way – I could have had the same moral values, and perhaps the same political values.
But I think what we generally fail to realise is that all the major religions have the same basic principles. Everyone professes to believe in peace, professes to believe in hospitality, professes to believe in caring for those in need, professes to be generous with our time and with our money to others who are in desperate states. So I think that the basic principles of all the major religions are about the same.
What do you think are the most important factors in education? What kind of things would you like your grandchildren to learn?
Well, the thing that my grandchildren learn that I never did study is how to use an iPad. In fact, my grandson – my daughter’s older son – doesn’t even have textbooks in school; he just has an iPad. To learn how to use new technology is very good, because it gives people access to each other’s thoughts and beliefs and it breaks down national barriers, religious barriers, and generic values. So I think the modern technology of cell phones and instant access to information is very good.
But there are basic principles that don’t change. When I was inaugurated President of the US, when I made my Nobel speech when I got the Nobel Peace Prize, I quoted my schoolteacher who had affected me when I was a little boy. She said: “We must accommodate changing times, but cling to unchanging principles.” This has been a philosophy that I have tried to follow.
Jimmy Carter with one of his grandsons, at an Elders event highlighting the impact of climate change, October 2009
Chuo-Koron: As a member of The Elders, what are you most excited about and concerned about these days?
Jimmy Carter: As you know, the Elders are a great variety of people. We come from different parts of the world, we’re in different age groups, we have had different responsibilities in the past. But I would say that now, after five years, part of it coming up as the formative years, we’ve gotten to know each other. We’ve gotten to respect each other.
We have found a common commitment on some key issues. On what I have just described to you in this interview about the Middle East peace process, we are unanimous; there’s no difference. On what I have described to you about North Korea, we are unanimous; there’s no difference. We feel that we should fill vacuums in the world. If the US won’t meet with Hamas, the Elders meet with Hamas. If the US won’t deal with North Korea, we go to North Korea. If the US won’t address difficult issues about human rights, we do that.
So we basically go where we wish, we meet with whom we choose, and we try to tell the truth. And we don’t have any political pressures on us. So, we’re free people. But all of us have had major responsibilities in the past – all the way from President or Secretary-General of the United Nations to an archbishop, as you know, a Prime Minister, the head of the World Health Organization – we have a wide range of backgrounds.
Excellent! Lastly, I’ve always wanted to ask. President Reagan and Vice President George Bush at the time secretly negotiated with Ayatollah Khomeini to delay the release of the Iranian hostages for 72 days to prevent your re-election. When did you find that out?
[Large smile] I never have been willing to comment about that. [Laughs]
[Laughs] OK, then. In your life, how have you been dealing with disappointment or criticism?
Well, I spent the last three days and nights as President… I never went to bed. I was negotiating all the details with Ayatollah Khomeini on how the hostages should be released. I had confiscated twelve billion dollars of Iranian money that I was holding. At ten o’clock in the morning, when I was going out of office at noon, all the hostages were in an aeroplane ready to take off. But Ayatollah didn’t let it take off until five minutes after twelve o’clock when I was no longer President.
But I would say that when I learned from the Secret Service who came and whispered in my ear “the plane has taken off,” it was one of the happiest days – the happiest moments – of my life, to know that my hostages were free.
That’s amazing… So, you are satisfied and don’t have any hard feelings as long as your main goal has been achieved.
President Carter, thank you very much for this wonderful opportunity.
This certainly has been a superb interview and you asked the most probing questions. Thank you!
This interview is part of a Chuo-Koron series about "The Elders' wisdom." Coming next: Fernando Henrique Cardoso