Former President Gerald Ford died yesterday.
I’m sure that there will be much discussion of Ford’s legacy as the only non-elected President in US history, following the resignation of Nixon, and the implications of his pardon of Nixon, perhaps the defining moment of his presidency. As he was only in office briefly, serving out the remainder of Nixon’s second term, Ford is not generally credited with many major foreign policy initiatives or successes. He inherited Nixon’s agenda, team, and issues, but spent much of his presidency focused on domestic and economic issues. Nevertheless, Ford did leave at least three important though probably under-appreciated legacies in the realm of US Foreign Policy.
First, many of the familiar senior figures of today’s foreign policy debate got their start in the Ford administration. It was under Ford that a young Dick Cheney became the President’s Chief of Staff and Don Rumsfeld became the youngest Secretary of Defense. Brent Scowcroft was National Security adviser and George Bush was director of the CIA. The experience of these men, and many others from that time, continues to have a profound impact in shaping US Foreign Policy. One need look no farther than the strong alliance between Rumsfeld’s Pentagon and Cheney’s office of the Vice President in shaping Iraq policy, an alliance forged in the Ford Administration.
Second, Ford really began the era of intelligence oversight by issuing Executive Order 11905. The order is perhaps most famous for its ban on assassination by US government agencies. Since their founding in the early years of the Cold War, the US intelligence agencies, notably the CIA and NSA, gave themselves a wide mandated to fight the Cold War. Some of this activity became rather questionable, and included spying on US citizens in violation of US law. However, until the mid-70’s, there was no Congressional oversight of the Intelligence Community. Following high-profile investigations by Congress, several laws were passed establishing the legal framework for Intelligence oversight that we have today. Ford’s executive order was the first in a series of steps to regulate what sort of spying the US can and cannot do. The order banning assassination remains in effect to this day, having stood the test of time across administrations of varied political leanings. The Global War on Terror has renewed the debate over this ban, yet it remains in force. Now, the US government still targets individuals, such as Saddam Hussein on the first day of the 2003 Iraq war, or various Al Queda terrorists. But, because of Ford’s order, these efforts must pass through a complicated legal framework and justification as legitimate military targets, not assassinations. One can debate the point of this, but the fact that that debate is there at all is part of Ford’s legacy.
Finally, Ford signed the Helsinki Final Acts in 1975. The Helsinki accord was formally about the end of World War II in Europe, recognizing and fixing the borders of European states, in particular the changes made by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. However, one “basket” of the accords contained key provisions about the importance of Human Rights, and when the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites signed the accords, they committed themselves, formally, for the first time, to upholding basic human rights. At the time, this was not seen as a major issue, but it would perhaps be the longest lasting legacy of the Accords. This moment marked a the entry point of Human Rights as a key issue in US foreign policy and helped end the Cold War. While subsequent Presidents, notably Carter and Reagan, would put Human Rights at the forefront of US foreign policy, Ford’s signing and ratification of the Helsinki Accords made it possible for them to do so in a meaningful way. Having the USSR as a signatory to the document gave them a touchstone against which to measure Soviet treatment of their own people. Even more importantly, the Accords led to the foundation of many NGO’s dedicated to monitor their implementation. In the West, the best known is Human Rights Watch (originally founded as Helsinki Watch, to “watch” the signatories adherence to the accords). In the Soviet Bloc, groups such as Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia were formed, inspired by the Helsinki Accords. These groups ability to hold their governments accountable for human rights abuses by highlighting the standards to which the governments had agreed in Helsinki was one of the key beginnings of the end of the Cold War. The modern discourse of Human Rights, government policies to uphold human rights, and international network of NGO’s who monitor human rights issues owes much of its existence to the Helsinki process, a process that Gerald Ford was willing to stand up for, sign, and incorporate into US foreign policy.
Its certainly not a Truman or Reagan, Kennedy or even Eisenhower-esque legancy, to be sure, but as much of the discussion of Ford’s life and Presidency will most certainly focus on Nixon, its important to remember a few of the important things he did accomplish in his brief time as President.
Filed as: Gerald Ford