I’ve been struck recently by news coverage of climate change and humans’ degradation of the planet. Two opposing themes keep appearing. One is the sense that, as individuals, there’s little we can do; the forces are too large. The other — and I think many Americans would agree with this — is that as citizens of the planet we have a responsibility to protect it and to pass it on in good shape to those who follow us.
So how do we reconcile those warring impulses — not just on the environment, but on many global and international issues? How, in other words, do we engage with the world?
Because make no mistake: as Americans, we are global citizens. It’s not just that the world has deep-seated, unavoidable problems that, if ignored, will bite us where we live. It’s that we inhabit a preeminent world power that bears a responsibility to lead.
If you pay attention to international meetings, you can’t help but notice that other countries have for many years turned to us to take the lead. That’s diminishing under our current administration, but not because other countries (with the exception of China and Russia) are eager to take our place. Shaping the global order has been a central feature of our identity and our history. Abraham Lincoln spoke of American freedom as “the last best hope of earth.” JFK promised to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Ronald Reagan spoke of this country as a “shining city upon a hill.”
I don’t actually agree with the boundless sense of American power and responsibility suggested by Kennedy’s promise. The truth is, we couldn’t “pay any price” or “bear any burden” back then, and we can’t now. Our obligation in its broadest terms is to try to make our nation and the world safer, freer, and more prosperous when and where we can. But we can’t do it all.
What does this mean for us as citizens? It means we have an obligation to inform ourselves about the world we live in. It means we should learn about international affairs, visit other countries if we’re able, learn a foreign language, read what foreign leaders have to say. We should engage with people from other countries, both here and abroad, and work hard to understand the challenges that other countries and their citizens confront. In short, we should try to see problems not just from an American perspective, but more broadly.
Beyond that, I think that as Americans, we ought to be first in line to respond to humanitarian disasters and to raise our voices in support of innocent people who have been mistreated. Where we can, we should try to lessen tensions between nations and groups, reduce conflict, and improve the quality of life for all. We should be perceived to be a benign power.
Yet we have to do all this with keen awareness of our limitations. We can’t solve all the world’s problems. We can’t pour our resources into every challenging place and problem. We need the help of others and should welcome it. We have to be smart about how we use our power. We have to reserve the right to use force as a last resort, but diplomacy and development should be our preferred tools of engagement.
I’m uneasy talking about “American exceptionalism,” even though I really do believe we have a responsibility to the world. I’m far more comfortable when we show we’re exceptional. If we really are exceptional, others will notice. We don’t need to flaunt it.
In the end, we have to look at our responsibilities as global citizens quietly and confidently, with humility, and try to contribute to a safer, more prosperous world. That’s something we can all do, and a goal we should push our leaders to pursue.
Lee Hamilton 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, representing a district in south central Indiana.