08/13/2014 04:01 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2014

Principles in the Paradox: United States Foreign Policy

"Don't do stupid s***." I have said this to my three boys when they were going out for the weekend in high school, but there is a different context for this slogan.

This supposedly is a premise upon which the Obama administration bases much of its foreign policy. And recently, and with justification, Hillary Clinton criticized this by saying that philosophy is not an organizing principle and great nations need organizing principles in foreign policy. But where are both major political parties and leading candidates for president on enunciating clear and compelling goals and objectives for American foreign policy? It seems the only compelling case each side makes these days is criticism.

The Republican establishment attacks Sen. Rand Paul for being an isolationist and not supporting military interventions; Hillary Clinton suggests that President Obama isn't "hawkish" enough on foreign policy; many commentators yell that we aren't defending our friends enough, or doing more on humanitarian crises. Some suggest President Obama is too much of an interventionist and hasn't done more for peace, others say he is feckless and slow to act and has not used the military enough. And the words go round and round without anyone really spelling out a clear foreign policy vision, and most Americans (and the world) are confused about exact what our strategy is and what it has accomplished.

America hasn't had a clear foreign policy vision and strategy for at least twenty years. And our country and the world has suffered because of this. The United States isn't the only powerful country in the world, but it is the only superpower. And with this great power comes grave responsibility. It is incumbent on our leaders and future leaders to spell out a clear, effective foreign policy vision. And in that context, spell out the uses of our military as we seek to accomplish that vision.

Yes, our great nation needs organizing principles that are pillars of an overall broad foreign policy division. Principles that the majority of the country can support and that are not driven from a partisan standpoint. And let me suggest that we will find these through the great paradox of leadership -- where seeming opposite values present a choice, but the path of being a leader is standing in the center and balancing these opposing dynamics. We are a powerful nation, but we can't solve every problem in the world. We need leaders who can say that and then give the public a clear direction of the manner in which we will act in the world.

In my view, there are five important principles in this place of paradox that should help drive the strategy of our country in the world.

1. We need a foreign policy that is both idealistic and pragmatic. A vision that has moral weight and underpinnings, but is also practical and realistic. Foreign policy that is merely idealistic causes us to feel good, but usually ends up with bigger blunders and not properly estimating the practical application of decisions. And a policy that is only pragmatic causes us to lapse into an ends-justify-the-means dynamic and not being seen as a leader in the world of moving us all to a better place.

2. The leadership in the world should be both proactive and reactive. When we are too proactive we get ourselves involved where we shouldn't and end up not being able to build coalitions of countries and regional alliances when we need them. And when we are only reactive, we aren't leading and just managing the status quo and people have no sense where we are going.

3. Though we are a constitutional democracy and we all believe in the power of those principles, our goal in the world shouldn't be to force those principles on others. We should seek to encourage democracy, not establish democracies. As we have learned recently, unless a country wants a democracy from the bottom up, top down imposition of any good government won't be accepted.

4. Regarding use of our military, the question we should constantly ask is just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. If we look over the span of the last 50 years, most uses of the military have not ended with good long-term results. We have lost precious resources of blood and budgets, and it is tough to argue our country or the world is better off because of many military actions. Sometimes war or military action is unfortunately the answer, but most often it is not. And when we do use the military for foreign policy ends we need to have a very clear enemy and a very clear exit or end strategy.

5. Our foreign policy needs to embrace some permanent moral values and long-term global strategy in the world, but tactically we need to understand it is best we act regionally and in a temporary way. The successes of foreign policy for the United States come from talking globally and long term, and acting in temporary ways with limited engagements and building moving alliances on a regional basis. We must understand that many of our enemies of the past became our friends along the way, and many of our friends have become our enemies. We can stick to broad moral values, but we need to understand that the practice of this in the world changes and we need to adapt without losing our core values.

To me we are at a moment in the world where conservative and progressive principles can align and we can be a world-wide leader protecting our country and moving the world and ourselves ahead into the future. But first we need to build principles in the midst of life's paradox. Those are my five above, what are yours?

There you have it.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.

Cross-posted from ABC News.