Confidence, Clarity, Realism and Unity Will Be Keys to Success of U.S. Leadership Around the World

As we watch the nightly television news or read the international section of any major newspaper or digital news, we see a world in disorder and turmoil.

While still the strongest and most prosperous nation in the world, the U.S. doesn't wield the same level of clout on the global stage that it once did. China is rising, Russia is asserting itself, the alignment of nations is in flux and disappointing results in Iraq and Afghanistan have sapped public support for strong U.S. leadership in the world.

No wonder, then, that crucial questions arise about that leadership. A few key principles should guide us.

First, we should accept and embrace the United States leadership role in world affairs, and never stop trying to make our country and the world a better place.

Most of us like the idea of America as the world leader, but we are also ambivalent about it. We neither embrace nor abandon that role. We are disinclined to get involved, deeply concerned about the costs of nation building around the world and wary of foreign entanglements, and we have scant tolerance for casualties in far off places.

But we also take pride that the U.S. has contributed much to the peace, prosperity and security of the whole world and are confident we can fix much that is wrong. We know we have made mistakes along the way, and more than once displayed a touch of the arrogance of power, but we also know we have led the world toward decades of growth and improvement, and created the international mechanism for world order.

We have to have confidence that the world is a better place when the U.S. leads.

Second, America must have a razor-sharp clarity to our foreign policy. Our aim, of course, is to make America safer, stronger and richer. To achieve that we have to identify and rank our core interests, and the threats to them. Pundits often make a list of our interests and potential threats. They have a boundless vision of what we should do; they want us to stabilize every country, scale up our efforts everywhere. But hard choices have to be made to prioritize our efforts and precisely articulate our policy. Failure to say what we mean, and mean what we say, simply creates confusion, wastes valuable resources and diminishes America's leadership. And once formulated and articulated, that policy needs to be faithfully executed.

Third, while we should be a leader in world affairs, we must be realistic about the world as it is and what we can, and cannot do. We cannot spread freedom everywhere, all the time. Realism means our resources and our political will must match our objectives.

A strong dose of realism is needed to overcome our tendency to overstate our foreign policy goals, ignore the amount of resources needed and recognize the limits of our power. Outstanding differences with China and Russia will not be easily resolved and other nations, acting in their own interests, will not be cowed by American power.

Fourth, we must be smart about using all the arsenal of available tools: aid, trade, development, military action, rhetoric, political and diplomatic efforts. Military action can be essential, and we must always deal from a position of strength, but we must not reach too quickly for the gun, using it only as a last resort.

The underlying societal and economic challenges around the world must be aggressively attacked through our diplomacy. Diplomacy can solve many challenges, but not all of them. Making peace means talking to our adversaries, as well as our friends. We must never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate, as President Kennedy reminded us.

With our friends and allies we must create a global architecture to address our challenges. The world's toughest problems, from health-related issues, to environmental concerns, to the fight against terrorism, to nuclear proliferation, to immigration, all share a common trait: they are too big for any one country to solve on its own.

Fifth, in order to conduct an effective foreign policy, we need a strong domestic base. Indeed, our political and economic example may be our most effective tool in the execution of our foreign policy. The polarization, dysfunction, excessive partisanship and the failure to get our economic house in order that has come to characterize our politics in recent years -- and which has spilled over into the current presidential race -- weakens the country's global standing and puts our national interests at undue risk.

Finally, the president and Congress must provide a unity of effort, to advance the foreign policy interests of the nation. That unity has slipped in recent years. The president is the chief foreign policy actor but the Congress must provide support and counsel at takeoff, throughout the flight and during landing if the country is to chart a safe course. Close cooperation through consultation between the executive and legislatives branches of government is an essential ingredient of an effective foreign policy.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Senior Advisor, IU Center on Representative Government. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.