I’ve been struck recently by news coverage of humans’ degradation of the planet. Two opposing themes keep appearing. One is the sense that, as individuals, there’s little we can do; the forces are too large. The other – and many Americans would agree with this -– is that as citizens of the planet we have a responsibility to protect it and to pass it on in good shape to those who follow us.
So how do we reconcile those warring impulses – not just on the environment, but on many global and international issues? How, in other words, do we engage with the world?
As Americans, we are global citizens. The world has problems that we can’t afford to ignore, and we inhabit a preeminent world power with a responsibility to lead.
What does this mean for us as citizens? It means we have an obligation to inform ourselves about the world we live in. We should learn about international affairs, visit other countries if we’re able, learn a foreign language, read what foreign leaders have to say. We should engage with people from elsewhere and work to understand the challenges that other countries and their citizens confront.
Beyond that, as Americans we ought to be first in line to respond to humanitarian disasters and to raise our voices in support of innocent people who have been mistreated. Where we can, we should try to lessen tensions between nations and groups, reduce conflict, and improve the quality of life for all.
We have to do all this with keen awareness of our limitations. We can’t solve all the world’s problems. We can’t pour our resources into every challenging place and problem. We need the help of others and should welcome it. We have to reserve the right to use force as a last resort, but diplomacy and development should be our preferred tools.
I’m uneasy talking about “American exceptionalism,” even though I really do believe we have a responsibility to the world. I’m far more comfortable when we show we’re exceptional. If we really are exceptional, others will notice. We don’t need to flaunt it.
In the end, we have to look at our responsibilities as global citizens quietly and confidently, with humility, and try to contribute to a safer, more prosperous world. That’s something we can all do, and a goal we should push our leaders to pursue.
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.