In Considering American Exceptionalism and International Engagement, Talk Alone Isn't Enough

By Lee Hamilton for the Huffington Post
Nov 30 2015

In keeping close tabs on the race for the Republican presidential nomination, I've been struck by how the various candidates view U.S. foreign policy and, specifically, how engaged America should be in international affairs.

Clearly a fairly large split exists within the GOP primary. On the one hand, there's the view, held by front-runner Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, that the U.S. should let somebody else fight our wars, including those (Iraq, Afghanistan) that we initiated. On the other hand, a number of other candidates, among them Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Marco Rubio, maintain a much more expansive view of American foreign policy, including the commitment of U.S. forces in combat in foreign lands.

Despite their differences, all of the candidates continue to champion the idea of "American exceptionalism," a belief that the U.S. is uniquely qualified to lead the world. I would submit that most Americans, not just politicians running for office, would accept the view that we represent an exceptional nation, one that gives us a great deal of pride. We stand by the strength of our system of representative government, which strives to provide liberty and justice for all and serves as a model for other would-be democracies around the world. We take heart in knowing that ours is still the most significant nation in the world, one that, in the face of major challenges, remains economically strong, socially appealing, responsibly powerful and internationally respected. And many of us, myself included, believe the world is a better place when America exercises its leadership.

As prideful as we are about American ideals and our immense contributions, we cannot be arrogant or smug, and we understand that we don't have a monopoly on the wisdom needed to solve the greatest challenges facing our planet. Acknowledging that we cannot solve all these problems by ourselves is not a weakness. Furthermore, we are not immune to mistakes, sometimes major ones. Indeed, at times we've tried to do too much. Other times we've not done enough. Sometimes we've approached situations with misplaced priorities and, yes, we've pursued ill-advised wars.

On balance, though, America has exercised solid foreign policy judgment, and I have been routinely impressed at how committed we have been through the years to helping to advance a rule-based international order. I simply would not want to contemplate the world without American leadership.

Unfortunately, I don't see a plethora of leadership elsewhere around the world or other countries stepping up the way America has to help solve our global challenges, which puts us in the unenviable position of often being the only nation trying to ensure that these challenges are met with an aggressive response.

Some politicians react to these challenges by advocating for U.S. disengagement from international affairs, while at the same time continuing to campaign on the back of American exceptionalism. This type of talk troubles me. I'm much more comfortable when America shows that it's an exceptional nation rather than just talks about it, and when, generally speaking, it's serving the citizens of the world, not seeking to control them.

U.S. leadership is not always appreciated and is often criticized. But I have a hunch that these countries would complain much more -- and enjoy their situations far less -- if American involvement went away.

This is not to say that I believe we should, in the words of President John F. Kennedy, "pay any price, bear any burden" as we strive for a better world. I certainly don't believe that we need to pour American resources into every challenging place and problem in the world. We have to make discriminating judgments between defending our core values and working with our allies to preserve and protect other significant interests.

Our greatness as a nation is truly reflected in our political, economic and military prowess, and our commitment to and our passion for freedom and democracy for all peoples. Without question, we have the power to sustain our primacy in the world. While we can and should lead the world, we cannot control it. It will take skillful and prudent use of all the tools of power in this exceptional nation to have impactful leadership that results in a more peaceful and prosperous world.

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