Without doubt America’s global image has diminished in recent years. We once were preeminent as an international leader, but those days are no more. While the presidency of Donald Trump brought U.S. prestige to a low point, there are things we can do to restore our global leadership.
First, we need to engage in major diplomatic initiatives. President Joe Biden should be meeting with the leaders of our allies; he should travel to several of those countries and their leaders should be invited here. Direct meetings may be constrained because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we need to undertake them when feasible. Meanwhile there are alternatives, like last month’s virtual meeting of G7 leaders in which Biden declared, “The transatlantic alliance is back.”
These highly visible gestures are important. When Biden’s predecessors took office, they traveled abroad and made speeches that signaled an emphasis on foreign policy and honored our longstanding relationships with allies. Their public expressions of America’s commitment to internationalism won widespread approval.
Next, the United States needs to recommit to global agreements and protocols.
Biden took a right step when he said the U.S. would rejoin the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization. He also wants to strengthen our commitment to the United Nations, the NATO Alliance, and our partnership with the European Union. These institutions are fundamental to the promotion of democracy and the prevention of conflict, and to the creation of an environment for prosperity and peace. His active participation in these alliances is essential to fulfilling our support for the principles of multilateralism and democratic values.
He also needs to reestablish our leading role as an opponent of tyranny, human-rights abuses, and genocide. Using our economic and diplomatic power, he should push back against authoritarianism, including the military coup in Myanmar and China’s oppression of its Uighur minority. He needs to vigorously oppose aggression by Russia and China when they meddle in our elections, engage in cyberattacks, threaten our security and economic infrastructure, and seek to undermine the international system.
But he also must find commonalities with our adversaries and work with them, as we did with the Soviet Union on arms control during the Cold War. This tough but delicate and necessary diplomacy is an important part of restoring our leadership in the world.
Finally, we need to uphold a rules-based international order that facilitates cooperation with other countries. We should show leadership in areas like the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most critical issues of our time. Biden’s promise of $4 billion for vaccine distribution is on target. We can create incentives for working together to fight the pandemic, an area where international leadership has been lacking.
Of course, our leadership will be more persuasive if we show we can manage issues at home. The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol made clear that we must oppose extremism, domestic as well as foreign. Armed militias and white supremacists have terrorized immigrants and threatened health experts and elected officials. We cannot allow this to continue.
Recapturing the promise of the American dream to allow all Americans to prosper is a must for us to lead effectively.
The world needs our effective leadership, now as much as ever. It will not be easy to restore that leadership, but it is high time to make it a priority. If we do so, the United States will be a better place. So will the world.
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. Send comments to [email protected].