OPINION: It is Time to Show Our Resilience.
If you pay attention to global affairs, you know that increasing numbers of people believe US leadership in the world is coming to an end and the West more broadly is being eclipsed. I think these predictions are exaggerated, but they are not without some basis. Our challenges have grown. It is time for us to re-establish ourselves by showing our capacity for change and adaptation.
The biggest external challenge we face, of course, is the rise of China and the competition it offers to the democratic model. It is not just that its wealth, military power, and leverage around the world have all grown. It is also that China has had an astonishing rise, pulling millions of people out of poverty, drawing attention for its innovation and infrastructure development, and building one of the world’s leading economies.
This is an important point. You do not build prestige abroad by collapsing at home. In a very real sense, you cannot separate domestic and foreign policy, especially when you are the US. The world pays close attention to how we deal with internal problems, and our actions within our borders profoundly affect our standing and leverage as we assert global leadership. So how do we reenergize our global role? We begin, of course, at home, by bringing the pandemic under control, reinvigorating our own economy, and re-committing to the rule of law, to basic, long-established democratic processes, and to the core values of justice, fairness, and opportunity for all our citizens.
Then, I would argue, we need to return to the basics, which have taken a beating in recent years. We built our preeminence by using an international approach during the post-WWII period, working skillfully with European and other allies to lead the West. If we try to lead by ourselves, the task is far more difficult than if we join with European allies, Japan, other Asian countries, and allies in South America and elsewhere.
We also must restore basic democratic values— promotion of democracy, treating people decently, opposing corruption and abuse of human rights — to a prominent role in our foreign policy. Effective foreign policy requires a lot of components, but the moral dimension is key to making our leadership more attractive and more potent.
Obviously, American military power is part of our strength. People pay attention to us in no small part because of that power. But they also pay attention because of our willingness to work with others. In order to enhance our appeal, we need a well-functioning national security system with expanded arms control agreements. We have to counter Iran wherever and whenever possible — in a manner that does not risk war in the Middle East. And we must identify and oppose the world’s bad actors by exposing their weaknesses, corruption, and dictatorial tendencies.
I would also argue that we need to lead the fight on climate change. All the other issues we face are important, but this one is existential, and we do not have much time to get it right.
Finally, to help the US revitalize its place in the world, we will need strong, capable, realistic, and professional officials filling the key roles. That is true in the intelligence community — where unbiased and clear-eyed knowledge of events and other leaders is vital if we are to navigate the course of events and work with (or against) world leaders. And it is true in diplomacy, economics, the national security apparatus, and elsewhere, where depth, knowledge, and expertise are vital. To be blunt, we have become less respected for our competence, professionalism, and skill over the last four years, and while experts can sometimes become too narrowly focused, highly regarded representatives abroad can be among the biggest assets we deploy.
It used to be that, in any international forum, it was almost instinctive to turn to the US for leadership: the first question on the minds of allies was what the US thought and planned to do. That is less often the case, and I do not think the world is better off as a result. We have a lot of work to do to reassert our leadership, starting with strengthening our own democracy.
What a President-Elect Must Deal With
By Lee H. Hamilton
Joe Biden won’t become President of the United States for a few weeks yet, but it’s fair to say he’s already feeling the pressures of the office. I think being president-elect may be the second hardest job in the world.
For one thing, as president-elect he’s encircled by people who want something from him: appointments, jobs, internal disputes settled. Right now, political players of all sorts — people who supported him, people who opposed him, interest groups of all kinds and descriptions — are angling to get his ear.
I remember standing behind a rope line once when President-Elect Bill Clinton passed by. A gentleman standing next to me yelled, “Mr. President! Be sure to sign HR 101!” or whatever the bill number was. Then he ducked out of line and left. I’ve often wondered what he charged his clients for that little shout-out.
We’ve already seen what else lies in store, as President-Elect Biden announces cabinet picks: he will be analyzed backward and forward and criticized as being too liberal, too conservative, too timid, too bold, too committed to elites or not committed enough to expertise. This welcome-by-fire happens to every incoming president.
There’s also the realization that they do not get to make easy decisions. Every decision a president or president-elect makes is tough, because the easy ones have been dealt with before he even sees them. How to fulfill promises, how to deal with Congress, what to do about a slew of issues that will soon land on his desk — all will require hard decision-making.
In some ways, this will come to a head quickly, at his first State of the Union address. In every administration, one of the biggest fights both internally and among interest groups is to get a sentence or two in the speech, since that’s where a president sets out policy for the world to see. People do all sorts of things to get their phrase or topic mentioned, and the sorting process is fraught.
It’s hard to know in advance exactly what the key policy issues will be, but it’s not hard to guess. The pandemic will be a top priority from the get-go, as will the Russian hacking of our government's computer systems. Climate change, economic growth, and racial issues will feature prominently. Infrastructure development is always of importance. And in foreign affairs alone, there are enough challenges to try the most resolute politician: Iran, Afghanistan, China, Russia, Great Britain and Europe, global trade… Setting priorities will come down to the president and his closest advisors: that is, after all, what presidents do. The federal bureaucracy is huge and filled with talented people and resources. Focusing it on the big things is a major part of the president’s job. But beyond specific policies, President-Elect Biden has another set of challenges on his plate. He has said that he wants to “restore the soul of America” and to help our “better angels prevail.” The period since his election has only confirmed that we face serious concerns about the health of our democracy and its institutions, and about government agencies’ ability to perform effectively and without partisan or political interference. He has talked about bipartisanship throughout this year and will have to find a way to make it a reality in the face of determined opposition from Republicans and serious doubts among Democrats. Moreover, he has to restore the dignity of a presidency that has suffered withering attacks on its norms and prestige under his predecessor.
And while he won’t be able to avoid hot-button culture wars, he won’t be able to solve them, either. So he’ll have to do his best to address them without letting them dominate. An incoming president cannot afford to let matters that are extraneous to his core policies capture him — though he can try to lower the temperature on them.
In the end, perhaps his most important task will be to refocus the nation’s political will on the many challenges we face, and to project a sense of optimism that as a country we can address and solve them. Americans understand their complexity. What they want is a leader who can bring us together to work on them.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor 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.