Hamilton column: Can the US sustain the international order?

U.S. leadership faces challenges, and if we’re divided and unsettled at home, it will be much more difficult to respond appropriately.

Lee Hamilton
Lee H. Hamilton

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. You’d be amazed at how closely people in countries all over the globe follow events here and count on the United States to lead the way. 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 U.S. 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, further contacts and exchanges between nations and their citizens, and protect human rights. It’s based on mutually negotiated rules and initiatives that, in a well-functioning world, are promoted by institutions such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, and others.

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These days, though, it’s fair to say that there’s no aspect of the order we once took for granted that isn’t at least facing questions. This is in part because, at the moment, both China and Russia are asserting their interests and, often, working actively to undermine ours. At the same time, the U.S. role is less prominent than it once was. Our allies, especially after four years of the Trump administration, are uncertain of our commitment to global leadership given that we questioned longtime alliances, withdrew from institutions, pulled out of international accords, and in general pulled back from the web of alliances and agreements that we had helped shape in earlier years. Understandably, our friends and allies wonder how much they can count on us and our adversaries are eager to test us.

At the same time, forces beyond the control of any government are reshaping the global picture. Nationalism is stronger, conflicts between countries seem to be ratcheting up, and many societies are struggling with growing diversity, declining tolerance and a turn toward authoritarianism. On the whole, international power is less concentrated and more widely distributed, which presents challenges to global institutions and makes it more difficult to pursue much-needed reforms within them.

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’s by no means a given that it can endure, but the democracies have an advantage: for many people around the world, the more authoritarian alternatives are not especially appealing.

Even so, the work of strengthening the world order 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 slow to use force — not ruling it out, but relying on it wisely and 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 skill 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 of the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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