RECENT months have witnessed a series of foreign-policy missteps for the United States. In the wake of Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti we seem to have lost our footing. Once again, we are confronted with some fundamental questions: Will the US lead? Will we give voice and muscle to a strategy for peace after the cold war as we did during the cold war?
In my view, most of the usual answers to these questions ignore the relationship between our foreign policy and national character. With the cold war over, many Americans are exhausted by the effort of the last 40 years. They rightly want a peace dividend and relief from global commitments. But this can easily descend into isolationism.
Most foreign-policy specialists say we must tell the American people what we have at stake abroad and convince them that their defense and foreign-affairs money is well spent. But even more critical is a new effort to restore Americans' confidence that the US can play a strong global role.
The author of our cold-war containment policy, George F. Kennan, recognized this connection. Mr. Kennan argued in 1954 that we must preserve in the complex, fast-paced modern world the ``traditional values of a civilization'' and the ``inner vitality of life.'' He linked these cultural values to our foreign policy.
To the extent that Americans truly attended to their own values, he wrote, ``the dreams of these earlier generations of Americans who saw us as leaders and helpers to the peoples of the world at large will begin to take on flesh and reality.''
Kennan's message - powerfully echoed by Zbigniew Brzezinski's new book, ``Out of Control'' - was that we must respect those values that brought us the mantle of world leadership if we expect to keep it. These values involve responsibility, morality, community, family, and spirituality.
Today such values are under attack. Our loss of meaning, community, and commitment shows in our lack of connection with the political process, the collapse of public morality, and the decline of our schools.
These failings are well known; less well understood is how they threaten our foreign policy. If Americans are unwilling to sacrifice for their own future, then they will certainly refuse to sacrifice for the future of others.
If we do not promote responsibility at home, how can we be responsible actors abroad? If ethical standards have collapsed in the US, how can we respond to the moral challenges of starvation and genocide in other countries? If our own sense of community, civil activism, and duty to country are in decline, how can we become a force for building a global community of nations?
To establish a basis for a strong American global role, we must try to move beyond self-interest and promote a sense of community and responsibility. We need a new social movement dedicated to rekindling our sense of values and to matching entitlement with obligation, rights with responsibilities, opportunity with sacrifice.
Such a movement may be in the wind. A new spirit of volunteerism is alive and well among our young people. There is a growing awareness that government cannot go on doing business as usual. Every day, millions of Americans play by the rules, sacrifice for their families, and give to their communities. We need not create values out of whole cloth, but we must empower people who are already working to make America better.
The answer to the question of whether America leads abroad depends on a re-assertion of values at home. If we work to enrich our national character, our foreign policy will rest on a much stronger foundation.