01/29/2014 07:42 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2014

The Cold Truths About America's Foreign Policy Vortex

The early weeks of 2014 have me pondering vortexes, but not the kind that continue to bring bone-chilling temperatures to much of the nation, including my home state of Indiana.

I'm thinking of what might be termed America's foreign policy vortex -- a swirling mass of formidable challenges that reach across the globe, run the gamut of crises and raise crucial questions about our nation's role in the world, its values, its ability to find consensus and its appetite for international engagement.

Among these issues are:

  • A bloody civil war in Syria that has resulted in the deaths of more than 130,000 people, according to recent reports;
  • the tumultuous Middle East peace process;
  • the possibility of war with Iran if diplomacy fails and the country continues its nuclear build-up;
  • the possibility of a mass terrorist attack on the U.S. and the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria;
  • the potential of a highly disruptive cyber attack on our infrastructure;
  • the possibility of provocative acts from a nuclear North Korea;
  • the withdrawal of U.S. forces from a still unstable Afghanistan;
  • the specter of a new civil war between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq; and
  • additional instabilities and turmoil, including the possibility of a surprise, across the world.

As chilling as some of these challenges are -- especially the continued possibility of a mass terrorist attack on the U.S. -- it's important to remember that we confront them from a position of strength.

We're in good shape around the world and generally at peace. We share borders with good neighbors to our north and south and are protected by oceans to our east and west. We continue to boast a strong economy and national defense, including the world's premier military force and a sophisticated nuclear arsenal. We don't face any existential threat to our security, and it is clear that the U.S. still largely sets the international agenda.

Despite these strengths, we have endured many difficult experiences in recent years: the terrible tragedy of 9/11, two major wars and an economic downturn, all of which have tested our resilience as a nation and, too often, torn us apart. These experiences have also called into question our willingness to take a leadership role in the world.

Thus, our first foreign policy challenge is to address American public opinion here at home.

When confronting major issues, policymakers must always take into account our nation's diplomatic, economic, political and strategic interests.

Equally important, however, is to consider how Americans are thinking and feeling about these issues. Simply put, policymakers shouldn't think they are beginning from a blank slate. Americans have strong opinions, particularly on issues pertaining to foreign affairs, which cannot be ignored. Recently, we have endured wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, major conflicts that have been fought at a very high cost -- both in terms of money and, much more importantly, American lives.

Rightfully so, Americans are disinclined to get into the midst of conflict and are deeply concerned about cost, just as they are mindful about military overreach, our efforts toward nation-building in some of the world's troubled areas -- and whether these efforts distract us from serious domestic problems.

We are an America that, right now, is reluctant to fully embrace a world leadership role, but not quite ready to abandon it.

We're far from isolationist, but we're not that interested in policing the world either.

Make no mistake: To successfully meet our foreign policy challenges, we must deal with our problems here at home. Chief among these challenges is a government that blindly jumps from crisis to crisis, has demonstrated an inability to consider the long-term effects of its scattershot approaches to serious problems and is excessively partisan.

In my experience, our nation's foreign policy is strongest when the president and Congress are working together. And while I don't exactly subscribe to the adage that partisan politics stop at the water's edge, it's clear to me that we have far less cooperation in foreign affairs than we once had.

This divisiveness makes it difficult for America to lead and come to clear consensus on how to use our power in the world. Where do we intervene? For how long? And how do we get out? These are all critical questions, and how we answer them will affect whether we are successful in advancing our nation's strategic interests.

In his newly released book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates writes, " ... in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents."

Whether or not you agree with Gates' assessment, we have employed significant military resources in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and, in doing so, have seen how the use of force can have unanticipated and unpredictable consequences.

As we've learned, the use of force can be difficult and drawn out, draining resources. Here in America, we have often had elaborate, visionary goals when it comes to foreign engagement in places like the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe. For multiple reasons, though -- including a reluctance to put more boots on the ground than we already committed to -we have had an extremely difficult time providing the resources necessary to achieving those goals.

The challenge, then, is how to integrate our tools of power effectively to best advance our interests. Among these tools are our ability to exert our influence through non-military means, including political and economic means, as well as our "soft power" and our value systems.

Indeed, our most powerful tool may well be the example that we set for other countries around the world when dealing with our own economic and political challenges. Only by properly structuring our political system, overcoming the partisanship that currently plagues Washington, getting our fiscal house in order, and fully embracing our role as a leader in the world will we successfully navigate the vortex of foreign policy challenges we face today.

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