U.S. Foreign Policy for an Evolving World

05/20/2015 10:41 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

It's been a rough several weeks for President Obama on the foreign policy front.

Last week, the president had high hopes that a two-day Camp David summit might yield substantial progress toward strengthening the security of the Middle East, but the six Persian Gulf leaders who attended left without arriving at any bold new agreements. The meetings got off to an inauspicious start when King Salman of Saudi Arabia backed out at the last minute, and most analysts agreed that the meetings highlighted a growing gap between the U.S. and its Arab allies.

Prior to the summit, the president also sought to rally support for what would be one of the world's largest trade accords. Obama believes that the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious trade deal with 11 other nations, would boost the U.S. economy and counter China's growing influence in a vital part of the world, but at the moment he's being thwarted by skeptical members of his own party.

Meanwhile, several Republican presidential hopefuls have already begun laying out their foreign policy plans, which are notable for their criticisms of Obama's handling of world affairs. The debate on the U.S. role in the world will apparently be front and center in the 2016 presidential campaign.

For a moment, let's give the president a break on his foreign policy struggles and take a sizeable step back as we survey what we're dealing with around the globe.

Right now, the world's a tangled mess. Crises have cascaded and converged upon us in nearly every part of the world. Instability abounds. Threats to our security come from non-state actors as well as from hostile nations. Indeed, the number of foreign policy challenges facing the U.S. and its allies is staggering. Many of these challenges are hugely complex, and they don't ever seem to go away. If it's any consolation to Obama, most of these same problems will land in the lap of his successor and probably several future presidential administrations.

Of course, scanning the global landscape reveals several positives. The U.S. doesn't face an existential threat to its national security. Despite the many foreign policy challenges we face, we can essentially choose the role we play in the world and we deal from a position of strength. The fundamentals of what make our nation great are still in place. Militarily, technologically and economically speaking, we are far from perfect, but by and large we are strong. We remain the premier world leader, even if other nations might be narrowing the gap.

Nevertheless, much pessimism pervades our global engagement efforts. Across the political and media spectrum, there's a sense that if we're not doing too much, we're doing too little. We've got an overreach and an under-reach problem. We're losing our political will and capabilities to help out in the world. But we should really be focusing more of our energies at home.

Regardless of how you'd grade Obama's foreign policy performance as president, you cannot discredit him for trying. And he's not the first, nor will he be the last, president who finds many of the world's problems intractable. Foreign policy is often about managing, not solving, and not making things worse.

That said, if we truly want to see some progress made toward solving some of these global challenges, our nation as a whole must reevaluate its approach to foreign policy.

This means putting aside the ideological blinders and carefully calculating what America's vital interests are and answering several key questions: What are we attempting to achieve in the world? How much are we prepared to spend in resources and, more importantly, American lives to achieve our objectives? How long are we willing to be engaged in a particular challenge? Vagueness answering these questions only compounds our problems down the road.

Our biggest questions have often arisen over the use of military force, and, here, we have yet to strike the right balance between always using force and never using it.

We must be smart in our use of military power, recognizing what U.S. might can and cannot achieve. Personally, because of recent events, I have come to doubt our ability to change other nations. We need to be prudent and restrained, reject the role of gunslinger, but be willing to use force carefully and cautiously, and oppose bad actors who attack the way the world works.

Today, Americans largely reject putting troops on the ground, which has led us to rely mostly on Special Forces, drones, intelligence-gathering and training and supplying other forces to achieve our foreign objectives. Still, a sizeable contingent of critics would support the use of more U.S. military power. They see more U.S. military power in itself as an all-encompassing solution. If you're going to fight at all, these "hawks" say, fight to win. They also seem to suggest that the U.S. intervene militarily in every hot spot of the world, including, among others, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria. Hence, the question that needs to be asked of the critics is this: What are your priorities and specifically, what military force are you prepared to use, and where, to achieve your objectives? If we're going to get into all these areas, what's the exit strategy for getting out? Vague assertions about more military strength, while popular, are not sufficient.

As we tackle these and other tough questions, we must also remain confident in and recommit ourselves to promoting our nation's values. Those values include our strong support of peace, freedom and democracy, our generosity and willingness to share the benefits of our prosperity, and our technological prowess and innovation. At the same time, we must avoid actions such as torture and lengthy imprisonments that do not reflect our values and severely harm our image abroad and the willingness of nations to follow our lead. So, we need to set an example for other countries that would follow our model. That means our oft-dysfunctional political and economic system actually needs to work.

Other steps are necessary.

The forces of globalization will not be stopped, and we must do all we can to ensure the establishment of high quality trade agreements that ensure fair treatment for consumers, remove unnecessary trade barriers, expand our exports, reduce currency manipulation and protect jobs and the environment.

Finally, let's not forget that the U.S. isn't alone in tackling the world's largest issues. We will need a lot of help, and diplomacy will be key. While we should always be leery of foreign entanglements, we need to consult and work collaboratively and cooperatively with countries that can help us solve these issues. At the same time, we have to be realistic and recognize that the world is a dynamic place.

We were the preeminent global power for most of the 20th century, and we will remain the world's leading power for years to come, but our authority has evolved as other nations have grown in strength. We will have to learn to live and prosper in an evolving global environment.

At its core, the U.S. is an optimistic nation. Americans tend to believe we can solve any problem thrown at us. Self-confidence serves as vital component of the character of our nation, a nation that has a difficult time saying no when the need for help arises. But we simply cannot solve every problem. We have to be smart and strategic, while recognizing our limits.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Chairman, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.