Former President Jimmy Carter spoke with admiration about America's accomplishments during an outdoor address Monday afternoon at Lafayette College, but he also sounded like a parent talking about a gifted child who had yet to reach his or her potential.
About 3,000 people -- many of them bundled up in winter wear to ward off a brisk breeze -- gathered on the college's newly renovated Quad to hear Carter deliver the first-ever Robert and Margaret Pastor Lecture in International Affairs.
"I am very proud of America, but there are things we can do to improve our own nation," Carter said during a 55-minute presentation that include brief formal remarks and answers to written questions submitted from students, faculty and administrators.
The 39th president recited a lengthy list of conflicts America has been involved in since the end of World War II, and then said he would like our country to have "a reputation as a champion for peace."
He spoke at some length about North Korea, and how he helped convince that country's leader, Kim Il Sung, to do away with North Korea's nuclear program in 1994. "That agreement stayed in place for eight years, until the next president, whose name I will not say, tore up the agreement and declared North Korea part of the Axis of Evil," Carter said with some regret.
He said North Korea is "a very paranoid country" that is convinced the U.S. wants to attack and destroy it, which is why it's important for the U.S. to talk to North Koreans. "We could have peace," Carter said.
Carter, who oversaw the historic Camp David Accords signed by Israel and Egypt in 1978 after 13 days of secret negotiations, said he was encouraged by new Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts at reviving a Middle East peace talks.
Carter said bringing peace to Israel "has been the top priority of the last 35 years," and that "the U.S. needs to be in the forefront of settling [the dispute]."
If Israel would accept the borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War "with some modifications," withdraw from the West Bank and allow Palestinians elections, "we'll have peace," Carter said, adding that all Arab and Islamic governments in the region would support it.
The former president noted somberly that the U.S. "is in violation of 10 of the 30 paragraphs" in the U.N.'s International Bill of Human Rights; that there are prisoners in Guantanamo Bay who continue to be held without charges and will never get a trial, adding, "They will be in prison for the rest of their lives," and that the U.S. has the most people in jail -- "seven times more than when I left office [in 1981]" -- and still has the death penalty.
Even so, Carter said, "because of our great moral values, America is still looked at as the greatest country on Earth."
The president who put solar panels on the roof of the White House lamented that there hasn't been a true environmental champion living there since President George H.W. Bush went to Rio for an Earth Summit in 1992.
He called global climate change "the greatest overall threat to human society," adding, "nowadays, the Europeans have taken over leadership" on the issue.
Carter opened his remarks by praising Pastor, a 1969 Lafayette alumnus who served as a national security advisor in his administration, as "bold, brilliant, aggressive and [with] a mind of his own."
Carter said Pastor used those attributes to help negotiate the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty; persuade Castro to free 4,000 prisoners; establish relations with Cuba, and develop a human rights policy that eventually turned several dictatorships in South America into democracies.
Pastor, who introduced Carter, listened from his wheelchair, having undergone surgery for a cancerous brain tumor less than two weeks ago, as the president said, "Bob causes people to reach beyond themselves."
Reaching beyond was a constant theme in Carter's presentation.
He said that his non-profit Carter Center does not tackle issues that governments and other philanthropic organizations are handling, but rather "fills vacuums in the world."
"For example, we deal with neglected tropical diseases that don't affect countries that are rich … or even moderately rich," Carter said, listing two in particular that are spread by flies in Africa -- river blindness and trachoma eye infections, which lead to loss of sight.
At the end of his presentation, the 88-year-old Carter said his time at the U.S. Naval Academy and in the Navy was the biggest influence in his life. "I learned that the our great military capability should be designed to promote world peace … so that our great aspirations could be realized."