The Middle East is collapsing under the weight of social unrest. A once-united Europe is splintering in the face of waves of immigration from failed states. Asia is straining under declining economic conditions.
And the United States, as the most powerful nation in the world, is intimately tied to all of these problems, said Lee Hamilton, retired statesman and Presidential Medal Winner, speaking to an audience of more than 100 during Saturday’s annual William R. Laws Peacemaking Lecture at First Presbyterian Church in Columbus.
For too long, the United States has relied on its military strength as the primary means of resolving international conflicts, said Hamilton, who represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional district from 1965 to 1999.
For all of its training, equipment, expertise and good intentions, the military cannot create complex infrastructure or rebuild failing civil institutions, Hamilton said.
A U.S. Army captain with whom Hamilton spoke during a visit to Baghdad illustrated this point clearly, Hamilton said.
The soldier had been tasked with building, from scratch, a functioning school system in Iraq, the former Democratic congressman said.
When asked if his training was sufficient to the task, the captain responded, “No. I’m trained to kill people,” Hamilton said.
And that summarizes much of America’s foreign policy, he said.
If world leaders were asked to evaluate the U.S. response to global terrorism, no one would mention foreign aid such as money, medicine, food and shelter, he said.
They would instead respond with one word: “Drones,” Hamilton said.
The tide of violence in troubled areas of the world will not be stemmed through drone strikes or military might, he said.
“We must be a benevolent power,” Hamilton said.
Rather than sending troops and drones, the United States should be flooding the world with farmers, doctors and students, he said.
In Hamilton’s opinion, charitable organizations working overseas are second only to the U.S. military in shaping the world’s image of American foreign policy.
Every time an American doctor volunteers to work in clinics in the developing world or an American farmer helps plant crops, worldwide attitudes toward the U.S. improve, he said.
The mere act of traveling to other countries also is a powerful tool for peace, Hamilton said.
There is no surer route to understanding than youthful experience of other cultures, he said. Indeed, he participated in a foreign exchange program in college and has traveled extensively through his work as a policymaker, he said.
These experiences were directly responsible for Hamilton pursing a political career, he said.
Had he never traveled, he might have stayed a basketball-obsessed farm boy from Indiana instead of an adviser to presidents, Hamilton said.
If possible, Hamilton said he would spend the entire U.S. foreign aid budget arranging student exchanges, both sending Americans overseas and bringing foreigner citizens to the United States, he said.
However, that is only part of the solution, he said.
The current political discourse on the presidential campaign trail is cartoonishly inadequate to the depth and severity of the problems facing the United States, Hamilton said.
“Our most serious foreign policy issue is disunion at home,” he said.
Extreme partisanship and lack of basic civility in Washington, D.C., have eroded many of the most basic functions of government, Hamilton said.
Even core functions of government, such as the annual budget-making process in Congress, no longer work properly, he said.
Politicians are no longer willing to communicate across party lines, budgets deadlines are missed and governmental operations have shut down, Hamilton said.
It is the result of politicians unwilling to even attempt communicating, he said.
The problem translates overseas.
Several U.S. presidents from both parties have refused to negotiate with North Korea unless the Asian country dismantles its emerging nuclear weapon program, Hamilton said.
But North Korea will never do this — and so tensions rise and new hostilities emerge, he said.
If the United States does not communicate with other nations such as North Korea, problems cannot be solved.
Hamilton was the 21st speaker in the annual lecture series, supported through a trust established by the estate of the late First Presbyterian Church minister, William R. Laws.
As an expert in international relations, lawmaking and world travel, Hamilton was an ideal speaker for the series, which showcases influential policy makers talking about world peace, said Sherry Stark, former Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County president and chief executive officer, and current Arts District Coalition chairwoman.
Lee Hamilton served as representative from the 9th Congressional district from 1965 to 1999. Following his tenure in Washington, D.C., he founded the Center on Congress at Indiana University, serving as director until 2015.
Hamilton served as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, co-chair of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. He also served on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
Hamilton in 2015 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor available to civilians in the United States.
Before his 1964 election to Congress, he practiced law in Chicago and Columbus. He was married to Nancy Ann Hamilton for 58 years until her death in 2012. They have three children and five grandchildren.
“We must be a benevolent power.”
Retired statesman Lee Hamilton during William R. Laws Peacemaking Lecture