The United States and Europe led the world in pursuit of freedom and democracy in the post-World War II period. Relying on shared values, including a commitment to democratic governance and human rights, we shaped an international order that improved life for people around the world.
Today, our sense of shared values remains, but our leadership is being challenged, partly because of the rise of China, which is building a growing economy, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and distributing investments in many other countries. China, of course, seeks to reduce our influence in global affairs, and especially in the vast Asian-Pacific region.
I am cautious about the phrase “America first” to define or explain our policy. It carries more than a touch of overconfidence, even arrogance.
Some pundits suggest we are facing the end of the West. I think that is bogus, but we are in a place where we need to re-energize our global leadership.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote of “the end of history,” arguing there would be universal support for representative democracy and free markets. The rise of an authoritarian China and the growth of Western divisions have put that thesis to the test. But certainly, Americans have come to better understand the challenges to our power and the constraints on it.
With a new president taking office, it’s a good time for the U.S. to again bring Europe and other allies on board in global leadership. While not easy, it’s crucially important. It requires understanding that not only our national interest but our values, including the promotion of democracy and respect for all persons, stand at the core of our foreign policy.
While China’s rise has been noteworthy, we should not ignore China’s harmful policies — arresting dissidents, expelling foreign journalists, operating detention camps in Xinjiang Province, and so on. At the same time, we need to counter Iran’s aggressive steps in the Middle East and Russia’s interventions in other countries.
We have quite a few tools to accomplish these tasks, and we need to use them skillfully. We can use economic measures like imposing sanctions, freezing assets, and targeting individuals for financial penalties. We can expose corruption and support friendly, effective leaders. We can extend and expand arms-control agreements to include new weapons systems and threats. We can exploit the divisions that weaken our rivals. We can advance global cooperation, push for open economies, and lead the world in fighting climate change and other threats.
All of this requires that we maintain our military preparedness and be willing to use force when necessary. In general, we should look for ways to reduce our troop levels around the world, while maintaining our global leadership. We should not run for the exits but act pragmatically and prudently. For example, we should retain a modest military presence in the Middle East, for now, to counter terrorism by remnants of the Islamic State group.
Our intelligence gathering should be central to our role in the world. We need a large stable of experts who know what is going on in the world and what actions will be effective.
We should keep in mind that the U.S. should be a benign power, to be a force for good in the world. The moral component of our foreign policy is not just window dressing. It should be at the forefront of our policy.
Lee Hamilton, 89, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south central Indiana.