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OPINION: Intensity of change challenges U.S. leadership

By Lee Hamilton


I'm often asked how the world has changed since I got involved in politics. If I were to try to answer the question with one word, the word would be intensity. Everything, it seems, has become more intense.

The world is more complex, more volatile, more uncertain, and more unpredictable. And the overriding question is, are we capable of dealing with these changes that are coming at us so fast and furious?

Much of the change involves China, which has made remarkable economic progress and has become our major world rival. Tensions between the United States and China have ratcheted up. President Xi Jinping has pushed to make China a global power, cracked down on dissent, and centralized control of the economy. China’s model challenges the open nature of our democratic system.

Another challenge of great intensity is climate change. It is hard to pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV news without seeing examples. Devastating heat and drought, record wildfires, and storms of greater strength and frequency — all are consequences of a changing climate.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed [over 685,000] Americans and over [4.75 million] people worldwide, reminds us how quickly the world can be transformed. While experts had warned that pandemics were possible, we were not well prepared. The pandemic had a devastating impact on the economy, shutting down businesses and causing the loss of nearly 10 million U.S. jobs, according to one estimate. Families struggle as schools moved online. Businesses now struggle to find workers as many people left the workplace.

Institutions, including government, struggled to deal with these problems effectively.

Of course, we have faced serious issues in the past. When I was first elected to Congress, President Kennedy had been assassinated, the nation was divided over civil rights, and the Soviet Union was our great rival. But it was a simpler time. The world was split into Eastern and Western blocs, and it was easy to think we were the good guys. Today things are more complicated.

Our politics have become more intense and volatile. Many people and groups follow current events closely and have strong ideas about the issues. They have become more impatient, demanding that elected officials solve or mitigate our problems promptly.

When I started in politics, we had three networks, all providing mainstream perspectives. News anchors like Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, and John Chancellor gave us a common base of information from which to make decisions and judgments. Today, of course, we have multiple news sources, including cable TV and online outlets, and pundits clamor for attention. We are bombarded with information and misinformation. Deciphering the truth has become a formidable challenge.

So, the question is: are we capable of navigating the rising tensions and fast-moving changes?

It is good to remember that our nation has faced difficult times before. I wrote recently about some of the indispensable figures who guided us through turning points in our history: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others. We will need more indispensable public leaders — today and in the future.

The good news: It has been clear to me, in recent years, that we have a wealth of talented and dedicated leaders working to address our nation’s problems, men and women who can match our momentous challenges. In a time of great intensity and rapid change that can give us a measure of confidence.        

Lee Hamilton, 90, 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.




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