We don’t often think that how the U.S. conducts itself at home has much impact on how we face the world, but it does. When it’s messy at home, it’s hard to sustain the strength and readiness to turn our attention outward.
Doing so is especially important right now because what we’ve come to term “the international order” is under stress. It’s not collapsing by any means, but US leadership faces challenges and if we’re divided and unsettled at home, it will be much more difficult to respond appropriately.
What is the international order? It’s essentially the set of structures and values that evolved during the 20th century to resolve disputes, promote commerce and free trade, undergird economic development and investment, and protect human rights.
These days, no aspect of the order we once took for granted isn’t at least facing questions. China and Russia are asserting their interests and, often, working actively to undermine ours. Our allies, especially after the four years of the Trump administration, are uncertain of our commitment to global leadership and wonder how much they can count on us. And forces beyond the control of any government are reshaping the global picture, including nationalism and a popular taste for authoritarianism.
In this situation, it’s crucial that democracies such as the U.S., Europe, Japan, and Canada recognize the importance of the role they play in sustaining and revitalizing the international order. It will require a concerted effort that blends both cooperation and firmness. We have to strengthen our alliances, of course, as well as shore up and broaden arms control efforts. Countering authoritarianism in all its facets will be an ongoing challenge. And we need constantly to gauge how best to be a benign world power, helping to resolve conflicts and using force only when necessary.
Finally, as I suggested at the beginning, our strength on all these fronts will come from making sure that we are strong at home: that our economy is robust, our finances and debt are manageable, our elections are fair and well run, our infrastructure is revitalized, we invest in the future of our businesses through R&D, and we invest in the future of the American people by focusing attention on education and skills development. If we can do all that, then we will have earned the right to lead the world in navigating the challenges facing the international order.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.