Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter helps build new homes for families through Habitat for Humanity. CNS photo/courtesy Carter Habitat for Humanity

Glen Argan: Carter’s legacy shows limits to political power

  • October 4, 2019

Jimmy Carter, the former U.S. president who turned 95 on Oct. 1, is one of the most decent, self-sacrificing human beings of the 20th (and 21st) century. 

He is the same class as Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier. He continues to teach Bible school and work on Habitat for Humanity builds at his very advanced age. Carter is also living proof that a decent, even saintly, human being can have some measure of success in electoral politics.

As president, Carter was a strong opponent of the building and deployment of nuclear weapons. He negotiated and signed the SALT II Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty with the Soviet Union, a treaty which was never implemented. Even this treaty would not have halted the development of the U.S. Trident missile and nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Carter also said that if the Soviet Union launched a nuclear attack on the U.S., the Americans would respond in kind.

Carter is the best example of how far an American president can and cannot go in countering the American military-industrial complex. Weapons production did not decline during the Carter administration. Nor did the U.S., despite its massive nuclear stockpile, take steps to reduce the number of such weapons. Today, the nuclear threat remains as real as ever.

The term “military-industrial complex” was coined, not by a leftist radical, but by an American president, Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Forces during the Second World War. In his farewell speech as president in 1961, Eisenhower warned against the growth of “unwarranted influence” by the military-industrial complex. “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Eisenhower was too optimistic about an alert and knowledgeable citizenry restraining the growth of the military-industrial centre of power. This year, the U.S. military budget is $694 billion, almost four times that of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and more than 10 times that of the Russian Armed Forces. The U.S. is the world’s most highly militarized state, a phenomenon that has created a vast array of vested interests and unquestioning support from a large segment of the American population. That the country could change direction without causing massive economic upheaval and public dissent is unthinkable.

This situation sets the context for assessing the prospect of the world’s nations countering the threat of global climate change. The interests which depend on the world continuing its current path of resource extraction are entrenched, more powerful than any economic force in human history and unwilling to change. They will not be dissuaded by Eisenhower’s “alert and knowledgeable citizenry,” assuming such a citizenry exists.

The current president, Donald Trump, represents no challenge to the military-industrial complex. Whether a candidate who does represent a serious challenge to the economic system could be elected and allowed to govern with a free hand is, in my estimation, highly unlikely.

In Canada, we have more leeway. We still have enough freedom to take significant steps to reduce our carbon footprint, to work towards a different form of economy and society. Whether the political will exists to do that is another matter. The federal election campaign has been an uninspiring, business-as-usual contest among major parties unwilling to rock the boat. In the longer term, as the world’s resources decline and the powers turn their attention to our resources, we may lose that freedom.

What do we do? We need to first recognize that change will be difficult. Too many people are attached to the hedonistic lifestyle that has been the outcome of centuries of the growing power of capitalism. Although hedonism is directly opposed to biblical prophecy and the call to life in the Spirit, churches have been too accepting of the way things are.

We do need a spiritual revolution, a revolution which both softens our hearts and publicly challenges existing power structures. For that to occur, leadership is required. To this point, it is difficult to see from where such leadership will emerge. We can hope and pray that amidst the growing crisis, leadership even more inspired than that of Jimmy Carter will come to the fore.

(Argan writes from Edmonton.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.