56. Address by President Carter Before the United Nations General Assembly1

Mr. President, Mr. Secretary General, assembled delegates, and distinguished guests:

Mr. President, I wish to offer first my congratulations on your election as President of the 32d General Assembly. It gives my own Government particular satisfaction to work under the leadership of a representative from Yugoslavia, a nation with which the United States enjoys close and valued relations. We pledge our cooperation and will depend heavily on your experience and skill in guiding these discussions which we are beginning.

Mr. President, I would also like to express again the high esteem in which we hold Secretary General Waldheim. We continue to benefit greatly from our close consultations with him, and we place great trust in his leadership of this organization.

[Page 256]

Thirty-two years ago, in the cold dawn of the Atomic Age, this organization came into being. Its first and its most urgent purpose has been to secure peace for an exhausted and ravaged world.

Present conditions in some respects appear quite hopeful, yet the assurance of peace continues to elude us. Before the end of this century, a score of nations could possess nuclear weapons. If this should happen, the world that we leave our children will mock our own hopes for peace.

The level of nuclear armaments could grow by tens of thousands, and the same situation could well occur with advanced conventional weapons. The temptation to use these weapons, for fear that someone else might do it first, would be almost irresistible.

The ever-growing trade in conventional arms subverts international commerce from a force for peace to a caterer for war.

Violence, terrorism, assassination, undeclared wars all threaten to destroy the restraint and the moderation that must become the dominant characteristic of our age.

Unless we establish a code of international behavior in which the resort to violence becomes increasingly irrelevant to the pursuit of national interests, we will crush the world’s dreams for human development and the full flowering of human freedom.

We have already become a global community, but only in the sense that we face common problems and we share for good or evil a common future. In this community, power to solve the world’s problems, particularly economic and political power, no longer lies solely in the hands of a few nations.

Power is now widely shared among many nations with different cultures and different histories and different aspirations. The question is whether we will allow our differences to defeat us or whether we will work together to realize our common hopes for peace.

Today I want to address the major dimensions of peace and the role the United States intends to play in limiting and reducing all armaments, controlling nuclear technology, restricting the arms trade, and settling disputes by peaceful means.

When atomic weapons were used for the first time, Winston Churchill described the power of the atom as a revelation long, mercifully withheld from man. Since then we have learned in Dürrenmatt’s chilling words that “what has once been thought can never be unthought.”2

[Page 257]

If we are to have any assurance that our children are to live out their lives in a world which satisfies our hope—or that they will have a chance to live at all—we must finally come to terms with this enormous nuclear force and turn it exclusively to beneficial ends.

Peace will not be assured until the weapons of war are finally put away. While we work toward that goal, nations will want sufficient arms to preserve their security.

The United States purpose is to ensure peace. It is for that reason that our military posture and our alliances will remain as strong as necessary to deter attack. However, the security of the global community cannot forever rest on a balance of terror.

In the past, war has been accepted as the ultimate arbiter of disputes among nations. But in the nuclear era we can no longer think of war as merely a continuation of diplomacy by other means. Nuclear war cannot be measured by the archaic standards of victory or defeat.

This stark reality imposes on the United States and the Soviet Union an awesome and special responsibility. The United States is engaged, along with other nations, in a broad range of negotiations. In strategic arms limitation talks, we and the Soviets are within sight of a significant agreement in limiting the total numbers of weapons and in restricting certain categories of weapons of special concern to each of us. We can also start the crucial process of curbing the relentless march of technological development which makes nuclear weapons ever more difficult to control.

We must look beyond the present and work to prevent the critical threats and instabilities of the future. In the principles of self-restraint, reciprocity, and mutual accommodation of interests, if these are observed, then the United States and the Soviet Union will not only succeed in limiting weapons but will also create a foundation of better relations in other spheres of interest.

The United States is willing to go as far as possible, consistent with our security interest, in limiting and reducing our nuclear weapons. On a reciprocal basis we are willing now to reduce them by 10 percent or 20 percent, even 50 percent. Then we will work for further reductions to a world truly free of nuclear weapons.

The United States also recognizes a threat of continued testing of nuclear explosives.

Negotiations for a comprehensive ban on nuclear explosions are now being conducted by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. As in other areas where vital national security interests are engaged, agreements must be verifiable and fair. They must be seen by all the parties as serving a longer term interest that justifies the restraints of the moment.

[Page 258]

The longer term interest in this instance is to close one more avenue of nuclear competition and thereby demonstrate to all the world that the major nuclear powers take seriously our obligations to reduce the threat of nuclear catastrophe.

My country believes that the time has come to end all explosions of nuclear devices, no matter what their claimed justification, peaceful or military, and we appreciate the efforts of other nations to reach this same goal.

During the past 9 months, I have expressed the special importance that we attach to controlling nuclear proliferation. But I fear that many do not understand why the United States feels as it does.

Why is it so important to avoid the chance that 1 or 2 or 10 other nations might acquire 1 or 2 or 10 nuclear weapons of their own?

Let me try to explain why I deeply believe that this is one of the greatest challenges that we face in the next quarter of a century.

It’s a truism that nuclear weapons are a powerful deterrent. They are a deterrent because they threaten. They could be used for terrorism or blackmail as well as for war. But they threaten not just the intended enemy, they threaten every nation, combatant or noncombatant alike. That is why all of us must be concerned.

Let me be frank. The existence of nuclear weapons in the United States and the Soviet Union, in Great Britain, France, and China, is something that we cannot undo except by the painstaking process of negotiation. But the existence of these weapons does not mean that other nations need to develop their own weapons any more than it provides a reason for those of us who have them to share them with others.

Rather, it imposes two solemn obligations on the nations which have the capacity to export nuclear fuel and nuclear technology—the obligations to meet legitimate energy needs and, in doing so, to ensure that nothing that we export contributes directly or indirectly to the production of nuclear explosives. That is why the supplier nations are seeking a common policy, and that is why the United States and the Soviet Union, even as we struggle to find common ground in the SALT talks, have already moved closer toward agreement and cooperation in our efforts to limit nuclear proliferation.

I believe that the London Suppliers Group must conclude its work as it’s presently constituted so that the world security will be safeguarded from the pressures of commercial competition. We have learned it is not enough to safeguard just some facilities or some materials. Full-scope, comprehensive safeguards are necessary.

Two weeks from now in our own country, more than 30 supplier and consuming nations will convene for the International Fuel Cycle [Page 259] Evaluation, which we proposed last spring.3 For the next several years experts will work together on every facet of the nuclear fuel cycle.

The scientists and the policymakers of these nations will face a tremendous challenge. We know that by the year 2000, nuclear power reactors could be producing enough plutonium to make tens of thousands of bombs every year.

I believe from my own personal knowledge of this issue that there are ways to solve the problems that we face. I believe that there are alternative fuel cycles that can be managed safely on a global basis. I hope, therefore, that the International Fuel Cycle Evaluation will have the support and the encouragement of every nation.

I’ve heard it said that efforts to control nuclear proliferation are futile, that the genie is already out of the bottle. I do not believe this to be true. It should not be forgotten that for 25 years the nuclear club did not expand its membership. By genuine cooperation, we can make certain that this terrible club expands no further.

Now, I’ve talked about the special problems of nuclear arms control and nuclear proliferation at length. Let me turn to the problem of conventional arms control, which affects potentially or directly every nation represented in this great hall. This is not a matter for the future, even the near future, but of the immediate present. Worldwide military expenditures are now in the neighborhood of $300 billion a year.

Last year the nations of the world spent more than 60 times as much—60 times as much—equipping each soldier as we spent educating each child. The industrial nations spent the most money, but the rate of growth in military spending is faster in the developing world.

While only a handful of states produce sophisticated weapons, the number of nations which seek to purchase these weapons is expanding rapidly.

The conventional arms race both causes and feeds on the threat of larger and more deadly wars. It levies an enormous burden on an already troubled world economy.

For our part, the United States has now begun to reduce its arms exports. Our aim is to reduce both the quantity and the deadliness of the weapons that we sell. We have already taken the first few steps, but we cannot go very far alone. Nations whose neighbors are purchasing large quantities of arms feel constrained to do the same. Supplier na [Page 260] tions who practice restraint in arms sales sometimes find that they simply lose valuable commercial markets to other suppliers.

We hope to work with other supplier nations to cut back on the flow of arms and to reduce the rate at which the most advanced and sophisticated weapon technologies spread around the world. We do not expect this task to be easy or to produce instant results. But we are committed to stop the spiral of increasing sale of weapons.

Equally important, we hope that purchaser nations, individually and through regional organizations, will limit their arms imports. We are ready to provide to some nations the necessary means for legitimate self-defense, but we are also eager to work with any nation or region in order to decrease the need for more numerous, more deadly, and ever more expensive weapons.

Fourteen years ago one of my predecessors spoke in this very room under circumstances that in certain ways resembled these.4 It was a time, he said, of comparative calm, and there was an atmosphere of rising hope about the prospect of controlling nuclear energy.

The first specific step had been taken to limit the nuclear arms race—a test ban treaty signed by nearly a hundred nations.5

But the succeeding years did not live up to the optimistic prospect John F. Kennedy placed before this assembly, because as a community of nations, we failed to address the deepest sources of potential conflict among us.

As we seek to establish the principles of détente among the major nuclear powers, we believe that these principles must also apply in regional conflicts.

The United States is committed to the peaceful settlement of differences. We are committed to the strengthening of the peacemaking capabilities of the United Nations and regional organizations, such as the Organization of African Unity and the Organization of American States.

The United States supports Great Britain’s efforts to bring about a peaceful, rapid transition to majority rule and independence in Zim [Page 261] babwe.6 We have joined other members of the Security Council last week and also the Secretary General in efforts to bring about independence and democratic rule in Namibia.7 We are pleased with the level of cooperation that we have achieved with the leaders of the nations in the area, as well as those people who are struggling for independence.

We urge South Africa and other nations to support the proposed solution to the problems in Zimbabwe and to cooperate still more closely in providing for a smooth and prompt transition in Namibia. But it is essential that all outside nations exercise restraint in their actions in Zimbabwe and Namibia so that we can bring about this majority rule and avoid a widening war that could engulf the southern half of the African Continent.

Of all the regional conflicts in the world, none holds more menace than the Middle East. War there has already carried the world to the edge of nuclear confrontation. It has already disrupted the world economy and imposed severe hardships on the people in the developed and the developing nations alike.

So, true peace—peace embodied in binding treaties—is essential. It will be in the interest of the Israelis and the Arabs. It is in the interest of the American people. It is in the interest of the entire world.

The United Nations Security Council has provided the basis for peace in Resolutions 242 and 338,8 but negotiations in good faith by all parties is needed to give substance to peace.

Such good faith negotiations must be inspired by a recognition that all nations in the area—Israel and the Arab countries—have a right to exist in peace, with early establishment of economic and cultural exchange and of normal diplomatic relations. Peace must include a process in which the bitter divisions of generations, even centuries, hatreds and suspicions can be overcome. Negotiations cannot be successful if any of the parties harbor the deceitful view that peace is simply an interlude in which to prepare for war.

Good faith negotiations will also require acceptance by all sides of the fundamental rights and interests of everyone involved.

[Page 262]

For Israel this means borders that are recognized and secure. Security arrangements are crucial to a nation that has fought for its survival in each of the last four decades. The commitment of the United States to Israel’s security is unquestionable.

For the Arabs, the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people must be recognized. One of the things that binds the American people to Israel is our shared respect for human rights and the courage with which Israel has defended such rights. It is clear that a true and lasting peace in the Middle East must also respect the rights of all peoples of the area. How these rights are to be defined and implemented is, of course, for the interested parties to decide in detailed negotiations and not for us to dictate.

We do not intend to impose, from the outside, a settlement on the nations of the Middle East.

The United States has been meeting with the foreign ministers of Israel and the Arab nations involved in the search for peace.9 We are staying in close contact with the Soviet Union, with whom we share responsibility for reconvening the Geneva conference.

As a result of these consultations, the Soviet Union and the United States have agreed to call for the resumption of the Geneva conference before the end of this year.10

While a number of procedural questions remain, if the parties continue to act in good faith, I believe that these questions can be answered.

The major powers have a special responsibility to act with restraint in areas of the world where they have competing interests, because the association of these interests with local rivalries and conflicts can lead to serious confrontation.

In the Indian Ocean area, neither we nor the Soviet Union has a large military presence, nor is there a rapidly mounting competition between us.

Restraint in the area may well begin with a mutual effort to stabilize our presence and to avoid an escalation in military competition. Then both sides can consider how our military activities in the Indian Ocean, this whole area, might be even further reduced.

[Page 263]

The peaceful settlement of differences is, of course, essential. The United States is willing to abide by that principle, as in the case of the recently signed Panama Canal treaties.11 Once ratified, these treaties can transform the U.S.-Panama relationship into one that permanently protects the interests and respects the sovereignty of both our countries.

We have all survived and surmounted major challenges since the United Nations was founded. But we can accelerate progress even in a world of ever-increasing diversity.

A commitment to strengthen international institutions is vital. But progress lies also in our own national policies. We can work together to form a community of peace if we accept the kind of obligations that I have suggested today.

To summarize: first, an obligation to remove the threat of nuclear weaponry, to reverse the buildup of armaments and their trade, and to conclude bilateral and multilateral arms control agreements that can bring security to all of us. In order to reduce the reliance of nations on nuclear weaponry, I hereby solemnly declare on behalf of the United States that we will not use nuclear weapons except in self-defense; that is, in circumstances of an actual nuclear or conventional attack on the United States, our territories, or Armed Forces, or such an attack on our allies.

In addition, we hope that initiatives by the Western nations to secure mutual and balanced force reductions in Europe will be met by equal response from the Warsaw Pact countries.

Second, an obligation to show restraint in areas of tension, to negotiate disputes and settle them peacefully, and to strengthen peacemaking capabilities of the United Nations and regional organizations.

And finally, an effort by all nations, East as well as West, North as well as South, to fulfill mankind’s aspirations for human development and human freedom. It is to meet these basic demands that we build governments and seek peace.

We must share these obligations for our own mutual survival and our own mutual prosperity.

We can see a world at peace. We can work for a world without want. We can build a global community dedicated to these purposes and to human dignity.

[Page 264]

The view that I have sketched for you today is that of only one leader in only one nation. However wealthy and powerful the United States may be, however capable of leadership, this power is increasingly only relative. The leadership increasingly is in need of being shared.

No nation has a monopoly of vision, of creativity, or of ideas. Bringing these together from many nations is our common responsibility and our common challenge. For only in these ways can the idea of a peaceful global community grow and prosper.

Thank you very much.

  1. Source: Public Papers: Carter, 1977, Book II, pp. 1715–1723. The President spoke at 10:20 a.m. in General Assembly Hall at the Headquarters of the United Nations. Prior to the address, the President met with Waldheim and General Assembly President Lazar Mojsov. Additional documentation concerning Department of State and White House efforts in preparing the President’s address is in the National Archives, RG 59, Policy and Planning Staff—Office of the Director, Records of Anthony Lake, 1977–1981: Lot 82D298, Box 2, TL 7/16–31/77; Carter Library, Office of the Staff Secretary, Handwriting File, Presidential File, Box 52, 9/28/77 [1]; and Carter Library, Hertzberg Donated Historical Material, Speech Files, Box 1, UN Speech September 1977. The President believed that the speech was well-received, commenting in his diary: “There’s a different attitude among the nations of the world toward us, brought about by our own new policies and by the influence of Andrew Young.” (White House Diary, p. 112)
  2. Reference is to Swiss author and playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt. The line Carter quotes is from Dürrenmatt’s 1961 play entitled The Physicists.
  3. The first International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation organizing session took place at the Department of State October 19–21, and was attended by delegates from 40 countries and 4 international organizations (IAEA, Common Market, NEA, and IEA). For a press release announcing the meeting, the President’s remarks at the October 19 plenary session, and the text of the communiqué issued on October 21, see Department of State Bulletin, November 14, 1977, pp. 659–664.
  4. Kennedy addressed the UN General Assembly on September 20, 1963. For the text of his address, see Public Papers: Kennedy, 1963, pp. 693–698.
  5. Reference is to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which banned nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere and under water. Officials from the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union signed the treaty in Moscow on August 5, 1963. Following the Senate’s favorable consideration of the treaty on September 24, Kennedy signed the treaty on October 7, and it entered into force on October 10. For additional information, see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. VII, Arms Control and Disarmament, Documents 359 and 366.
  6. In late August–early September, Young and British Foreign Secretary Owen traveled to Nigeria, Zambia, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, and Zimbabwe to consult with African leaders on the question of establishing majority rule in Zimbabwe. At the conclusion of these meetings, Owen and Young returned to London. On September 1, Owen presented to the British Parliament proposals for establishing majority rule. For the text of both the proposals and a joint news conference by Owen and Young, see Department of State Bulletin, October 3, 1977, pp. 417–427.
  7. Reference is to the ongoing negotiations in Pretoria regarding the future of Namibia. Documentation on the negotiations is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XVI, Southern Africa.
  8. See footnote 4, Document 40.
  9. Memoranda of conversation of these meetings are printed in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VIII, Arab-Israeli Dispute, January 1977–August 1978, Documents 105118.
  10. On September 30, Vance and Gromyko met for 90 minutes to discuss both the Middle East and arms limitation. Both agreed to work toward resolving issues of Palestinian representation at a resumed Geneva conference. (Bernard Gwertzman, “U.S. and Soviet Vow Big Push on Mideast: Vance Meets Gromyko and Sees Cooperation on Geneva Talks,” The New York Times, October 1, 1977, pp. 1, 4)
  11. At a September 7 ceremony at OAS headquarters, the President and Torrijos signed the Panama Canal Treaty and the Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal. For the texts of both treaties, see Department of State Bulletin, October 17, 1977, pp. 483–501.