The United States is the most powerful country in the world. By any measure, we are preeminent. We have challenges and vulnerabilities, and we are not as dominant as we once were, but no one else comes close to America’s military, economic, and political might.
Whether we like it or not, we cannot escape the responsibility for global leadership our power places upon us.
Many Americans like having the U.S. out in front, but they have doubts about paying the price. They wonder if the benefits of being a world leader are worth the costs. Most of us are comfortable spending money on humanitarian assistance, but support for foreign aid is always at the top of the list of programs to cut. We certainly don’t like the idea of sending our young men and women to fight and die in other countries.
Among many Americans, there is strong sentiment to go it alone, put “America First,” in President Donald Trump’s phrase. Any U.S. leader will be looked to as a leader of the free world. It is a role thrust upon us. We really have no choice.
Many times, over the years, in meetings with international leaders, I have seen them turn to the Americans at the table and say, “First of all, what do you think?” The world looks to us for guidance.
We do have emerging rivals. China is striving for world leadership, and it is eager to expand its role. The U.S. and Chinese visions for the world are different. We want to expand freedom. China pushes an authoritarian view.
It is no small task, however, to persuade the American people that world leadership matters. Understandably, most Americans don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our global-leadership responsibilities.
U.S. presidents may not take office thinking deeply about these topics either. They focus on campaign promises and voter expectations. Bill Clinton vowed to fix the economy. George W. Bush said he would reduce foreign entanglements, but reacted to events with an expansive war on terror. Barack Obama wanted to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but could not. President Trump seems focused on overturning the actions of his predecessors, but does not tell us what he wants to do, and how he intends to do it.
Foundational to the dilemma of leadership is America’s unmatched military might. It’s easy to look at the world’s problems and reach for the guns and a military solution, but there are limitations to the blunt force of military power. Our troops have been in Afghanistan and Iraq for nearly 20 years without achieving peace.
My view is that military force should be a last resort, not a first choice. We should not put American lives at risk unless the national interest demands it. We must search for other ways to address our problems.
I have always been impressed with the talented people working for the U.S. government and its many agencies and departments. The bureaucracy gets a bad rap; and it’s true that, within our large government, there can be jurisdictional fights and competing claims of responsibility. Even so, we can put together teams with unsurpassed expertise to address problems.
The task is to choose the right tools and use them in the right way, when we have so many instruments of power — economic, military, and political.
We are the preeminent power, and the world expects us to lead. It’s a rare opportunity we have, and we must embrace it.
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.