An Outsider in the White House - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

An Outsider in the White House: Jimmy Carter, His Advisors, and the Making of American Foreign Policy


By Betty Glad. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0801448157.



In her book An Outsider in the White House, Betty Glad opens with the question, “What happens when an outsider with lofty moral and political goals and little experience or education in foreign policy takes over the U.S. presidency?” (1). President Jimmy Carter’s solution, she responds, was to lean on his staff in order to formulate and execute foreign policy.  As a result, his advisors exercised undue influence over international affairs and ultimately hijacked his  original global policy .  In addition, Glad describes the internal rivalries that existed within the Carter administration’s foreign policy team, specifically focusing on the differences between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.  Glad concludes that Brzezinski’s ultimate victory in this power struggle further caused the administration’s diplomatic agenda to shift over the course of Carter’s four years in office.

Glad elaborates upon this argument throughout the book’s six parts. The first third of the monograph, for instance, shows Carter’s initial policy goals and Brzezinski’s moves to consolidate power over his rivals within the administration, through the midterm election cycle in 1978.  Indeed, Carter allowed Brzezinski extensive authority over foreign affairs before the administration entered office.  Most of this power was granted through review of Presidential Review Memoranda and other reports (30-1).  Additionally, the organizational structure in place ensured that Brzezinski had the greatest access to Carter.  Since Carter lacked a chief of staff for the first three years of his term (9), Brzezinski was able to reach the president whenever he pleased without interference from another individual, thus acquiring an opportunity to exploit the system and Carter’s lack of foreign policy experience.  Finally, the section describes Carter’s broad foreign policy objectives.  In Carter’s first days in the Oval Office, he wanted to press human rights as an international issue and oversee substantial nuclear arms reduction (54).  Glad notes, however, that Carter abandoned these goals shortly into his term, due in part to Brzezinski’s influence.

The third and fourth parts of Glad’s book trace the failed efforts of Vance and others in the administration to exert influence over policymaking.  The third section, for instance, begins with Brzezinski’s push for greater relations with China.  Although Vance disagreed and believed that increased diplomacy with China might harm future talks with the Soviet Union (120), the persistent Brzezinski was able to persuade Carter, due  “not only [to] institutional and political considerations but psychological factors as well” (138).  Brzezinski was successful over his counterparts because he made Carter feel as though he were acting “tough” (139), and Glad notes that Brzezinski repetitively fell back to this strategy when trying to influence Carter.  In her view, Brzezinski continued to outmaneuver his internal rivals because of the organizational structure in place and Brzezinski’s ability to say what the President wanted to hear.

These two parts are perhaps the most intriguing portion of the work.  Brzezinski entered 1979 as Carter’s primary foreign policy advisor, despite his minor role in Carter’s two “very real successes [Panama Canal and Camp David]" (3).  Indeed, Carter’s greatest foreign policy success, the Camp David Accords, came when he personally took the lead.  In contrast, the many issues on which Brzezinski took the initiative did not yield the same successes as those where Carter led and utilized his entire administration.  Nonetheless, the president still abandoned the organizational structure that brought him success in favor of a Brzezinski-centric structure that had no major successes to its credit.  The reader must wonder whether Carter recognized what had led to success at Camp David and whether by late 1978, Carter understood how to run the White House.

The final two parts discuss Brzezinski’s absolute leverage over foreign policy during the final years of the Carter presidency.  In July 1980, Carter, who once supported nuclear reduction, signed Presidential Directive 59 (PD 59) which affirmed the administration’s belief that a strong nuclear program was necessary for American security needs (219).  PD 59 was direct evidence that the assertive Brzezinski foreign policy was now the policy of the entire administration.  With Brzezinski at the helm, Carter also dropped the human rights stance with which he entered office, choosing to ignore human rights violators for the sake of geopolitical considerations.  Consequently, the Carter administration that entered office championing human rights found itself voting in the United Nations to allow Pol Pot’s regime to continue its representation of Cambodia in the organization (238). 

This final part demonstrates a paradox within Carter’s foreign policy goals.  Carter wanted others to view him as strong and tough in foreign politics.  Brzezinski, however, was able to exploit Carter’s desires and become more powerful than his boss in the realm of foreign policy.  Carter’s hopes to be perceived as tough to external powers, then, actually weakened him within his own administration.  This paradox led to many of the administration’s foreign policy short-comings, and Brzezinski’s ability to outmaneuver Carter ultimately helped to seal the latter’s presidential legacy.  Through Glad’s analyses, though, the reader is given the chance to formulate his or her own opinions on Carter’s time in office.  On one hand, the reader can feel sympathy for Carter and argue that Carter was exploited by Brzezinski.  The reader could also place the blame directly on Carter for not being a competent executive and argue that Carter should have recognized Brzezinski’s position and not allowed him to gain so much influence. Regardless of the reader’s opinion, Glad still establishes that there was a stark contrast between how Carter wanted to be perceived in the international community and how he was within his own administration.

Glad’s work is an in-depth account of the internal workings of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy staff that successfully illustrates how  Carter’s international objectives changed as a result of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s ability to exploit  Carter’s inexperience and hijack his diplomatic agenda.  The book further makes the reader question whether Carter was at fault for Brzezinski’s ability to change the administration’s foreign policy agenda or if Carter was a victim within his own administration to an over-ambitious National Security Advisor.  The reader’s answer to this critical question provides a frame for their view of Jimmy Carter’s time in office.


Andrew K. Mengle
United States Military Academy (West Point)



About the author

Andrew K. Mengle is from Damascus, Maryland. He is currently in his third year at the United States Military Academy at West Point pursuing a B.S. degree in History. Upon graduation, Andrew will serve as an officer in the United States Army.


Recommended citation

Andrew K. Mengle, review of An Outsider in the White House: Jimmy Carter, His Advisors, and the Making of American Foreign Policy, by Betty Glad, Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 5, no.1 (Apr. 2015).

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