Like most of my fellow citizens, I’m proud to be an American. When we celebrate Independence Day and reflect on our nation’s history and heritage, we are pleased to identify with the United States and to stand with our country against its competitors and adversaries.
I am impressed most of all with two characteristics of the United States. First, as a nation, we believe in liberty and justice for all, in the words of the Pledge of Allegiance. And, as the preamble to the Constitution says, we continually strive to form a more perfect union.
Those aspirations, while we may not always live up to them, strike me as wholly admirable and worthy of support. In foreign policy as in domestic policy, we aren’t always right, but we try to be.
I have a vivid memory of walking out of the Oval Office in the White House meeting alongside President George W. Bush. We had spent quite a long time discussing various issues and actions he had decided to take. As we were leaving the Oval Office, he turned to me and said, “Well, Lee, did I do the right thing?” The question impressed me, then and now. He was the president, arguably the most powerful person in the world, and he was struggling to do what was right in the difficult decisions he had to make. That determination to do the right thing is at the heart of the promise of America.
It is no secret that the U.S. is the envy of the world, and we have been for decades. We have a solid economy, one that has experienced sustained growth for many years. We have political stability despite our partisan divisions. We have free elections and democratic self-determination.
Obviously, we can do better in all these areas. Success is never guaranteed, and there will always be issues to debate and difficult decisions to make. To achieve a more perfect union, we must strive continually for justice, equality, and peace.
The United States has done a good job of leading the world for decades, and I don’t think it’s arrogant to think we should continue in that role. What will it take for us to lead the international order, to truly be the exceptional nation that we claim to be?
On the international stage, we should act with civility and respect, guided by our ideals and values. We should try to be a benign power, to use our strength and influence for good. We should be active in global affairs. We should not be interventionists, but neither should we be isolationists. We have to strike a balance.
While our military power may seem limitless, we should not reach for the gun as a first resort. Sometimes it will be important to use force, but we should act with restraint and look first to diplomacy. I’m fond of the quote attributed to Winston Churchill: that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
As an international leader, we need to have credibility for our actions at home. We must keep our democracy vibrant. To maintain our strong economy, we need an educated workforce. Among other things, that means we need to improve our immigration system to attract the most talented people from around the world. We must build infrastructure, not only roads and bridges but also advanced technology, broadband, and clean energy. We have to vigorously support research and development in the public and private sectors. We must be bold, to take risks, and be willing to bet on big initiatives.
We can do these things, despite our divisions, because our national creed remains strong. Our belief in liberty and justice for all has not dimmed. As Americans, we should keep working to achieve a more perfect union.
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.