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A parting primer from a global thinker

As I retire from the Congress after 34 years, some of the overall lessons I've learned about United States foreign policy may be useful to share.

One way or another, developments abroad influence our lives at home. Local hot spots can grow into larger wars. Regional instabilities can threaten US energy supplies, undermine efforts to eradicate infectious diseases, or cause large numbers of people to flee to our country. So we can't retreat from involvement in world affairs. US leadership counts.

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The US is indeed "the world's indispensable power." If something important needs to be done in the world, the US needs to play a leadership role. When we sit on the sidelines, the world is a more dangerous, unstable place.

The basic test for judging US foreign policy is whether it advances our national interests. Even the world's only superpower cannot solve every problem or address every tragedy. We must be selective, our action based on a hard analysis of our national interests. Sometimes we will act simply because it is the right thing to do - such as helping to relieve starvation. Yet we should never lose sight of our goal - serving the American interest.

US interests are served best when we work cooperatively with our friends and allies. There will be times and places when we must act alone to protect our interests, but many of our most important objectives cannot be achieved without others.

We need to keep our focus on the long-term foreign policy issues facing our country. We can't allow daily problems to overwhelm us, diverting attention from issues central to our long-term strength and security. These include managing our relationships with China and Russia, as well as maintaining our key alliances with Europe, Japan, and our close neighbors.

When we have major differences with another country, such as China, Cuba, or even Iran, engagement works better over the long run than a policy of isolation. When the US pursues a policy of isolation, we're often forced to act alone, because we can't line up international support. When we act unilaterally - and quarrel with our friends and allies - we almost always undermine our ability to achieve our goals. Isolation can also eliminate incentives for countries to abide by global norms, encourage retaliatory action hostile to the US, and undermine the stature and influence of reformist elements within a country. Engagement doesn't mean appeasement or ignoring differences. It means working to resolve problems, promote US interests, and change a country's behavior through international diplomacy and the example of democratic societies.

We can't conduct foreign policy on the cheap. Total spending on US foreign affairs programs is barely 1 percent of total federal spending. It's penny-wise and pound-foolish to think we can continue to whack away at this part of the budget and not lose stature and influence. It doesn't match our role as a great power when we don't pay our dues to the UN, or don't meet our financial commitments to the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

Foreign policy benefits from a strong domestic economy and an open, growing trading system. Without a growing, prosperous economy, foreign policy is greatly restrained. International trade not only has benefits at home, but increases US influence overseas.

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The US has the world's largest, strongest, and most competitive economy, but downturns overseas can affect our economic security, and the stability of key friends and allies. We need US leadership to help stabilize the global economy and protect our long-term economic and security interests.

A strong US military establishment, second to none in the world, is critical, because diplomatic efforts must often be backed by credible use of force. A nuanced balance between diplomacy and force is necessary to achieve foreign policy goals. When other options fail, military force supports the American national interest.

Military intervention is the toughest foreign policy question we face. The US should intervene - with force if necessary - to protect our vital national interests, such as: defending our borders; preventing any single power from gaining control over Europe, Japan, Korea, or the Persian Gulf; and protecting ourselves against terrorism or weapons of mass destruction.

Although Congress plays an important role, the president is the chief architect of foreign policy. The role of Congress is to be a partner, helping formulate policy, acting as a sounding board for presidential initiatives, and providing policy oversight.

Foreign policy requires clear articulation by the president, who not only must decide which issues are important, but speak about them, articulating policy with great precision. More than one failure in American foreign policy has occurred because policy was neither clearly articulated nor well understood. The president must give sustained attention to policy as it is implemented, to maintain public support for the chosen solution. With the distraction of new challenges that constantly crop up, one of the most difficult aspects of foreign policy is to carry our own policies through to successful completion.

Finally, we must understand and pay attention to the mood of Americans. We can't sustain any major foreign policy over time without their support. Because members of Congress so closely track the views of constituents, they can play an important role in gauging popular support for a policy. So adequate prior presidential consultation with Congress is crucial.

Congress can help the president educate Americans, improve public understanding of complex issues and policies, and build public support for policies that are important to our long-term interests. US foreign policy clearly works best when the president and Congress work together.

* Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana is the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee. This is an excerpt of a lecture he gave yesterday at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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