As his popularity rose and fell, Carter pushed forward along several lines of policy. Foreign affairs commanded much of his time, and though he had grown up in the 1930s and early 1940s and had served in the navy during World War II and during the years that saw the establishment of the Truman policy of the containment of Communism, he had been affected by the mood of withdrawal from world affairs that had been gaining strength in the United States for a decade. In addition, even though they had served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and had supported their policies in Vietnam, many of the men Carter appointed to the top spots in international and military affairs had been influenced by the American failure in Vietnam and by détente. Secretary Brown indicated just before taking office that he had learned from Vietnam that "we must become more cautious about . . . interventions." Carter, according to observers, had by then "made it abundantly clear that the United States ought not to go plunging militarily into under-developed countries." Soon after taking office, he praised the nation for having overcome its "inordinate fear of Communism," and Andrew Young suggested that the administration rejected "military activism."
Carter did embark upon an international campaign for human rights. In part, he did so to distinguish himself from Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger, although the campaign made use of the 1975 Helsinki treaty that the Ford administration had helped to develop. In addition to affirming the boundaries established after World War II in Eastern Europe, the treaty contained promises to respect human rights. Carter hoped the campaign would enable the United States to "regain the moral stature we once had." He explained, "We've been through some sordid and embarrassing years recently, and I felt like it was time for our country to hold a beacon light . . . that would rally our citizens to a cause." But was this policy a response to criticism of past practices as much as it was a basis for renewed activism? "In a nation supposedly instructed in its limitations by its recent failures," a critic charged, "Jimmy Carter . . . has demonstrated how little America has learned"; Carter expressed "that traditional American delusion that, if only America can devise the right . . . formula, then the world will stop being what it is, and become what we wish it to be."
In any event, Carter had difficulty maintaining a firm course on human rights. He regarded this crusade as the centerpiece—the "fundamental tenet"—of his foreign policy. He criticized many countries, not just the Soviet Union, for violating human rights. But many people—inside as well as outside the United States, State Department officials as well as journalists, allies as well as opponents—charged that the campaign was meddling, harmful to international relations, destructive of détente, and a return to the Cold War. The administration often retreated under pressure.
The campaign had mixed results. To the distress of European leaders, it infuriated the Soviet Union, contributing to the emergence of what some called a New Cold War. On the other hand, it pressured authoritarian regimes in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa and encouraged democratic forces in those parts of the world.