Key to Successful U.S. Peacemaking? A Commitment to Diplomacy, Humanitarianism and the 'Example' of America

As his presidency enters its final stretch, Barack Obama has been following a path pursued by many of his predecessors, engaging in several last-minute peacemaking efforts around the world. Just a few weeks ago, Obama concluded a historic trip to Cuba, which marked the first time in 90 years that a U.S. president had set foot in the communist country. Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have also been weighing how to preserve a two-state solution to the centuries-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to preclude any lasting peace in the Middle East.

Up until this point, President Obama has found any meaningful progress in the area of peacemaking to be mostly elusive, as his administration has repeatedly faced a world that is complicated, messy and fraught with a mind-boggling array of devilishly difficult problems.

A glance across the global landscape reveals that the Middle East, the primary focal point of our nation's peacemaking attempts, is unraveling, with four countries Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen devastated by civil war. A united Europe, one of the great achievements of the second half of the 20th century, has slow economic growth and migration challenges, while Russia continues to position itself as a major geopolitical threat to the U.S. and its European allies.

In another part of the world, China and Japan remain mired in an economic malaise, which threatens the growth of developing countries in the Asian-Pacific region. As a result of this strained financial slowdown, trade talks worldwide have hit a wall. Meanwhile, in the face of United Nations' economic sanctions, North Korea continues to build its nuclear weapons arsenal, while the U.N. struggles to maintain its relevance. And while some progress has been secured in addressing the issue of global climate change, the deals that have been achieved have frequently been non-binding and fraught with glitches.

Here at home, the foreign policy debate taking place among our political leaders has been, for the most part, embarrassing. Far too often, the debate has focused on fear mongering, building walls and closing borders. I have heard few serious solutions inside the Beltway and on the campaign trail toward truly addressing the complex foreign policy challenges facing the U.S. and its allies around the world.

The environment that I have just described has bred considerable cynicism and discontent both at home and abroad about U.S. foreign policy. Nevertheless, it hasn't changed the fact that the U.S. is the only true global power in the world and that other countries continue to insist upon American leadership.

So the question then becomes: what can America realistically do to help make peace in a troubled and chaotic world.

This question was repeatedly posed at a conference that former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar and I helped convene last month at Indiana University's new School of Global and International Studies. The two-day conference featured about two dozen policy analysts, scholars, political leaders and journalists who came together to consider "America's Role in the World" and the critical foreign policy issues that will face our nation's next president.

When I consider America's role in the world with regard to peacemaking, I see our nation as most successful when we serve as a benign power. To this end, I would like to see the U.S. be at the forefront of any humanitarian initiative, responding to earthquakes, famines, fires, floods and other natural or manmade disasters, and providing services that are essential to human survival to endangered areas around the world. When channeled correctly, U.S. humanitarian aid, which reflects the generosity, compassion and decency of the American people, can have an enormous impact. It can also improve our nation's image in eyes of the rest of the world. Public opinion of U.S. foreign policy around the world rose considerably when we launched a major relief mission after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that killed several hundred thousand people. It increased again several years later, in 2011, after we responded to an earthquake and tsunami that caused massive death and destruction in Japan.

Our interactions shouldn't be restricted to times when disaster strikes, however, nor should we always expect government to initiate them. I've often been impressed by the power of the non-governmental sector to foster greater cultural awareness and understanding between nations. Over the years, I've met countless foreign leaders who, through their education in the U.S., have a much kinder view and greater appreciation of our nation's mission and values. Our world would be greatly served by an increased number of educational and cultural exchanges between farmers, business executives, health care professionals, teachers, students and people from all walks of life.

Likewise, our world benefits when America exercises strong diplomacy, which has long been our nation's hallmark. Now more than ever, our skill in statesmanship and negotiating will be needed to diffuse tensions, build consensus and resolve conflict. Still, the power of diplomacy is not a panacea when it comes to international relations. We simply cannot jump into every conflict, and we will always encounter questions about priorities and timing. But let it always be known that America will stand on the side of trying to solve conflict and defuse tensions by getting people to work together.

Diplomacy doesn't mean only talking with our friends, however. I fundamentally disagree with politicians and policymakers who put conditions on meeting with our adversaries. We've seen such conditions serve as a non-starter with regard to North Korea. As I've previously written, not talking to the North Koreans isn't going to stop them from continuing to grow their nuclear capabilities. You can't make peace without talking to those who don't agree with you.

It's clear that the U.S. wields enormous military power, which it has frequently used to combat evil forces around the world. But we must resist the great temptation to reach for the gun too quickly. We should first reach for the purse, aid, economic and political leverage, investments, trade deals and all the non-military tools available to us as the global power. Though we must always be prepared to use our military forces, military might should be our last resort to managing conflict.

I believe that more of our nation's energies would be better directed at working with nations to strengthen their political institutions, seek open governance, promote an active and engaged citizenry, and supply people with the knowledge and resources to maintain and preserve an effective democratic society that serves everyone. Our assistance to help build democracy requires as a condition of that aid that the recipient countries step up to the responsibilities of democratic leadership.

Of course, building democracy remains a formidable task, one made even more difficult when we neglect the "example" of America, what we stand for and how we take care of our own. The recent conference at Indiana University concluded that our nation's greatest foreign policy challenge is our own dysfunction and rancorous partisanship that stands in the way of government effectively serving our citizenry.

We must work harder here at home at getting our own economic and political house in order for the rest of the world to emulate. Only then will America reflect its true promise -- of life, liberty and justice for all -- and have a real chance at fostering peace around the world.

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.