The dominant question for U.S. foreign policy is what is America’s role in the world?
Throughout our history, we have had major debates over this question. It arouses strong feelings across the political spectrum. We argue about when, where and how we should play that role.
A quick glance at what American presidents have said provides no clear guidance.
George Washington said we should extend commercial relationships with foreign nations but have as little political connection to them as possible. Washington and Thomas Jefferson warned against “entangling alliances.”
John Quincy Adams famously said that America wishes freedom and independence to all but “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
But fast forward to John F. Kennedy’s first inauguration and you hear an extremely interventionist message: That we would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to ensure the survival and success of liberty.”
Bill Clinton said that America “stands alone as the indispensable nation.” And George W. Bush said our goal should be “ending tyranny in our world.” After the 9/11 attacks, Bush said, “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model for the world.”
Each president was speaking in the unique, historical circumstances of his day. But they gave very different answers to the question of what America’s role in the world should be.
And this is not an abstract exercise. The answers cut to the heart of what kind of country we are and what we want to be. The American people have an enormous stake in how the president answers the question because they will end up paying the price, in dollars spent and lives lost.
In the coming weeks, I will explore in-depth some of the challenges facing American foreign policy. Including the shifting alignment of nations, the megatrend of globalization – and how we should respond to the rising turmoil in the world.
The central reality for these challenges is the preeminence of American power. We are the world’s military, economic and cultural leader and the only player with a global reach.
I have attended countless international meetings over the years, and I have always been impressed with how other nations look to America for leadership — especially when the world faces a crisis. Participants always ask American leaders: What is the United States going to do?
In the eyes of the world, we remain the foremost guardian of security and order, and more than any other single-player, we shape the international order.
Having said that, we are not the unchallenged global power we were after the fall of the Soviet Union. Our effectiveness and durability are in constant question. As we face these questions, our nation, at least in some respects, is turning inward. Many believe we should concentrate our resources on helping people at home and reduce our global prominence.
Our global dominance may be diminished, but we are far from finished as the world’s leader. How we play our role is evolving.
My guess is that we will remain first among other centers of power for years to come.
We cannot solve the world’s problems by ourselves, but we should grasp our leading role, and—to the best of our ability—try to move toward solutions.
By Lee H. Hamilton