Absolute Commitment: Ideology, Human Rights and the Carter Administration's Policy toward Central America, 1978-1979

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Title: Absolute Commitment: Ideology, Human Rights and the Carter Administration's Policy toward Central America, 1978-1979
Author: Nix, Shannon
Advisors: Dr. Nancy Mitchell, Committee Chair
Dr. Lars Schoultz, Committee Member
Dr. Richard Slatta, Committee Member
Dr. Steven Vincent, Committee Member
Abstract: Michael Hunt has claimed that the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy is “incomprehensible, perhaps inconceivable,†without taking into account a panoply ideas that comprise a nationalistic strain in U.S. foreign policy. Founded on an exceptional national identity, Hunt traced the evolution of three persistent ideas, often subtle though sometimes shrill, that have informed U.S. foreign policy from its inception. In one sense, Hunt’s work was an existence proof, one that since has been widely accepted by historians. On the other hand, he was tendering a call to arms, a Geertzian mandate to bring the subtle influences of ideology on U.S. foreign policy “into the light of day.†Some have argued that interests, and not ideology, are what determine foreign policy – policymakers imagined to be hard-nosed realists with an omniscient capacity to determine the “national interest.†While it is not my thesis that ideology determines U.S. policy, I submit that it mediates the formulation, deployment and reception of that policy. For many, the values implicit in human rights are indistinguishable from the nation and, by implication, their preservation and propagation are indistinguishable from the national interest. Ideology forms the mediating lens through which policymakers grapple with the complex and nuanced realities that comprise the “national interest.†Ideology shapes and circumscribes the discourse that determines the “national interest.†Ideology matters. In an attempt to answer Hunt’s call, I pose this central question: To what extent and in what ways did these persistent strains of nationalistic ideas affect the formulation, deployment and reception of U.S. policy toward Nicaragua and El Salvador during their respective succession crises that culminated in rapid succession in the last half of 1979? The Carter administration was more self-conscious than most about the legacies of a historically nationalistic U.S. foreign policy – the legacies of empire in Latin America, of racial discrimination and cultural chauvinism, and of an “inordinate fear of communism.†Nevertheless, nationalisms are socially constructed and, as such, are historical phenomena. They have an historic arc and an historic mass – in short, an ideological inertia, sensitivity to which is insufficient to arrest its momentum. The Carter administration, though more reflective than most, was ultimately incapable of escaping ideology’s gravitational pull or its historical residue. The discourse of universal human rights, steeped in notions of Western exceptionalism, provides rich auger for exploring Hunt’s trilogy of ideas in the formulation, deployment and reception of policy. While many in the Carter administration were sensitive to past U.S. interventions in Latin America, the administration’s human rights policy was a proselytizing policy. It replaced Roosevelt’s gunboats and Taft’s greenbacks with human rights commissions, foreign assistance, and diplomatic démarches. Second, the administration founded its prescription for advancing human rights on Western tropes of modernity; U.S. values and institutions – presumed to be universal, the ultimate expressions of modernity – were deployed to remedy a presumed endemic Latin American “backwardness.†Finally, the Carter administration deployed human rights as a means to wage the Cold War, the institutional underpinnings of human rights – the rule of law, democracy and development – all Burkean prescriptions to reduce the vulnerability of benighted societies to the specious ideologies of revolution. My method for discovering ideology at work in the Carter administration’s human rights policy is to examine the discursive contrails of that policy, the use of language in the public and private rhetoric of those that formulated and followed U.S. foreign policy. In successive chapters, I examine the formulation of the Carter administration’s human rights policy in early 1977, and then its application in the Nicaraguan succession crisis during 1978 and the Salvadoran crisis in 1979 following the Nicaraguan revolution. While the ultimate object of this study is the effect of ideology on that foreign policy, the immediate object of examination is the policy itself and the rhetorical acts surrounding that policy. Not wishing to “cherry-pick†my evidence from the voluminous record surrounding the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran succession crises, I will attempt to remain detached from any ideological analysis during the course of this “thick description,†deferring such analysis until the final chapter.
Date: 2010-03-04
Degree: MA
Discipline: History
URI: http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/resolver/1840.16/1356

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