Carter and the Decline
of Détente, 1977-1981
When Jimmy Carter entered the White House in January 1977, he knew little about foreign affairs. He had been a nuclear engineer, a successful businessman, and governor of Georgia. His only significant experience with international relations came from serving on the Trilateral Commission, an organization committed to redirecting the emphasis of America's foreign policy away from the communist world to Western Europe and Japan. After his election to the presidency in November 1976, Carter gave positions in his administration to many of the commissions's members. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Polish-born professor of political science and director of the Trilateral Commission, became national security adviser. Cyrus Vance, a Wall Street lawyer when he was not serving in government, was named secretary of state, and Harold Brown was appointed secretary of defense. Both had served on the commission.
Unlike Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, both of whom relied heavily on Henry Kissinger, Carter did not permit one individual to oversee the nation's foreign policy. Instead, from the beginning, the new president intended to rely on advice from both Vance and Brzezinski, but he, himself, intended to direct the administration's foreign policy. According to Carter's aide, Hamilton Jordan, "Zbig would be the thinker, Cy would be the doer, and Jimmy Carter would be the decider." 1
While Vance and Brzezinski initially believed that they could work together, and actually did during the administration's first year, their differing philosophies of international relations, and particularly the different