Lee Hamilton '52
March 15, 2011, Greencastle, Ind. — Looking toward the future, veteran statesman and foreign policy expert Lee Hamilton says, [Download Video: "Land Wars" - 749kb] "I believe the chances are slim that the United States will fight more wars on land, like Iraq and Afghanistan, to bring about a change in government." The 1952 DePauw University graduate mapped out the realities and challenges facing the nation in a Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture at his alma mater tonight, discussing "The U.S. Role in the World After Afghanistan and Iraq."
Hamilton, a Democrat, served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and chaired the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran. He noted, "Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates said the other day that sending a big American land army into the Middle East, or Asia, or Africa doesn't make any sense. I agree with him."
Nuclear proliferation tops the list of challenges facing America, Hamilton told a crowd in Meharry Hall inside historic East College, but an increasingly global economy, energy, environmental issues, U.S.-China relations and cybersecurity threats are also issues that will shape the nation -- and world's -- agenda in coming years.
[Download Video: "Strengthening Partnerships" - 472kb] "We are the world's preeminent power, but we cannot impose our will on the world," Hamilton declared. "So we have to strengthen our partnerships, we have to find commonality of interests and build trust" with other nations.
Seeing relationships with foreign governments -- especially those which are thorny -- change for the better will not be an overnight process, Hamilton asserted. [Download Audio: "Patience" - 529kb] "I want you to recall -- those of you who are older, at least -- that we in the United States decided not to vanquish the Soviet Union, but to wait and to be patient. I can remember the speeches about 'rolling back' the Soviet Union. I can remember what that entailed. But at the end we had the confidence in ourselves, confidence in our judgment about the weakness of the communist system, and the Cold War ended without a catastrophe. So part of our arsenal of tools has to be patience."
A key, ongoing challenge for the nation is to recognize "the limitations of American power," Hamilton says. When it comes to sending troops or other forms of assistance to other countries, "sometimes we're going to have to say 'no'." He added, [Download Video: "Drawing the Line" - 1722kb] "From my view, our goal is not to combat evil or to remake the world ... or end tyranny in the world. It is not to bear any burden, or to pay any price. All of these things are desirable, for sure, but far, far beyond our capabilities to achieve. And so we have to rigorously define the core interests. We cannot right every wrong, we cannot reverse every adversity, we do not have a solution to every problem in the world. And we've gotta get a lot better than we are at deciding what we can and cannot change and what we must protect."
The complex questions surrounding U.S. intervention have been front and center in recent weeks with the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the current unrest in Libya. [Download Video: "Pragmatism" - 1001kb] "We do not really know tonight whether we are seeing genuine democratic revolutions in the Middle East or whether the protests are going to fizzle out, become chaotic, repressive, or end in a full democracy -- we simply don't know. Now, we know what we hope. But we don't know." Hamilton says the U.S. "should call for significant political reform and we should pragmatically help opposition movements."
He added that, while Libya's Moammar Gaddafi is no friend of the United States, it's still not clear who the rebel forces in that country are and what they stand for.
"There are many things we might like to do, many governments we might like to change, many conditions we'd want to correct, but the real question is, what is the overriding American national interest in a given problem and what kind of resources are we prepared to make to achieve those goals?," Hamilton asked. "We can lead the world, but we cannot control it." He added, "If the United States does not lead, more often than not, the problem is not addressed. People around the globe may complain about a world with too much American power; I think they'd complain a lot more and enjoy it a lot less if there was too little American power." (above: Lee and Nancy (Nelson) Hamilton '52 with their grandson, Louie Souza, a current DePauw freshman)
The United Nations and International Monetary Fund are "not very robust institutions and they are declining in their effectiveness," Hamilton says. The international organizations once played a more vital role in global affairs but don't reflect "the realities of the 21st century," in Hamilton's view, and are in need of reform.
Hamilton has been busy since leaving Congress, serving as vice chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission) and co-chairing both the Iraq Study Group and the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America's Future, among other panels. He's currently co-chair of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The man called "Mr. Integrity" by Newsweek was president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., until late last year, and continues as director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.
The former congressman's day at his alma mater began with a forum with political science students, which took place at The Inn at DePauw. It was followed by a meeting with DePauw student journalists and then dinner at The Elms, the home of DePauw President Brian W. Casey.
Hamilton has been a frequent visitor to DePauw over the years, having delivered commencement addresses in 1971 and 1998. He also was among the presenters at DePauw Discourse in 2006 and 2008. Hamilton joins Ferid Murad '58 and Jim Alling '83 as alumni who have presented Ubben Lectures at DePauw.
The man who majored in history and starred on the Tiger basketball team (and is a member of both the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and the DePauw Athletic Hall of Fame) said tonight that he is troubled by the nation's debt, and the financial weakness must be addressed or it will weaken America's standing in the world. He added, [Download Video: "Nation-Building" - 314kb] "I think the American people today are more interested in nation-building at home than they are in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The longtime congressman believes the nation needs to invest more assets, and faith, in diplomacy to address the problems of the future. [Download Video: "$$" - 1033kb] "The present civilian/military imbalance in our budget is just staggering ... The country has fewer than 7,000 diplomats. We have more members in the military bands than we have in diplomacy."
Hamilton, recipient of the Churchill Award for Statesmanship, the Eisenhower Medal for exceptional leadership, and the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Freedom From Fear Award, among many other honors, continued, "I'm not starry eyed about what diplomacy can achieve. It is not a panacea. Presto, it does not make problems in the world go away. It has its limits. But I think not talking is a near guarantee that problems will fester and that opportunities for progress will be missed."
In closing, Hamilton told the students, faculty, staff and alumni seated in the venue, [Download Video: "The Question" - 1819kb] "I am often asked the question whether I think America will succeed or fail; whether it will continue as #1 or decline. My answer, somewhat facetiously I'm afraid, is what difference does it make what I think about that, or for that matter, what you think about it. Whether you or I are optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the country doesn't really matter. None of us really knows. What is more important than what we think about the nation's future is what we do -- that each of us do our part to make the country better and stronger."
As he looked out over the hall in which he spent many hours as a DePauw student some 60 years ago, Hamilton added, [Download Video: "In Conclusion" - 2925kb] "My guess and my hope is that Americans will accept the economic, personal and political costs of being our world's leader. We love this country, every one of us ... Good outcomes in the world are possible, but they are not inevitable. The future could bring order, it could bring chaos, it could bring a mixture ... but whatever the challenges we face, American leadership will count."