For decades, the United States has pursued a policy of extensive engagement – military, economic and diplomatic – throughout the world.
Americans consider ourselves the indispensable nation, a role that requires our global engagement. For example, 200,000 U.S. troops are stationed around the globe on 800 bases in 70 foreign countries and territories. In addition to defending our interests, our forces promote global stability and security.
Even so, the American people are wary of military interventions and foreign entanglements. This tension between global engagement and wariness of foreign entanglements is at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.
With his America first approach, President Donald Trump brings a perspective that is somewhat more isolationist and doubtful about working with our allies than his predecessors.
So today, as often before, America struggles to define its role in the world.
American leadership around the world brings benefits to ourselves and the world. We promote democratic order, prosperity and peace. We hold high the ideals of liberty and justice for all; not just for Americans. As a benign actor, we seek to alleviate humanitarian disasters, stand up for human rights, and search for the paths to peace.
At the same time, we remember John Quincy Adams’s statement that the United States should “go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” In foreign policy, we favor engagement with restraint, and prefer meeting our challenges through diplomacy rather than reaching for the gun.
Further, we are cautious and pragmatic in our military commitments and interventions, using force sparingly without relinquishing our leadership role.
We do not want to be the world’s policeman. We prefer to tackle global issues by working with like-minded groups and individuals through alliances and negotiated agreements.
While we are wary of the unintended consequences of military intervention that doesn’t mean we should never intervene. We try to do so as a last resort and after extensive consultation with our allies. Recognizing that every situation is different, we reject sweeping doctrines of intervention or isolation. Above all, we are pragmatic, wanting to help people and reduce tensions where and when we can.
Our foreign policy promotes democratic ideals, social, economic and racial justice and open information networks. We oppose authoritarian and other regimes that abuse their own people and bully their neighbors.
We are locked in a struggle for influence with China and Russia. That doesn’t mean we go to war, but it does mean we stand up for our interests. If conflict is forced upon us, we are ready.
We need a strong defense, but our national security strategy should not rely only on dominate military force but also diplomatic tools to seek free and fair trade, care for our planet, liberty and justice for all, and limitations on nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
Finally, Americans should never stop thinking about how to bring peace to our troubled world. How can we defend our interests without resorting to war? How can we use our power to prevent conflict?
While we must not drop our guard against external adversaries, we should be equally concerned about our internal conflicts. Deep divisions into hostile tribes over a multitude of domestic and foreign issues, endanger our future. E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one – is more than a motto on our currency. It is our living creed.
By Lee H. Hamilton