THE global role of the United States is much debated. My impression is that while Americans worry about the burdens of leadership in the Gulf and Central Europe, and want more help from friends and allies, they do not want the US to relinquish its special place in the world. Three viewpoints are heard. Pessimists argue that US power is declining. They say the US grew to a position of dominance by its military, economic, and technological prowess, but has failed in recent years to manage its affairs prudently and to strike the proper balance between overseas and domestic commitments. This imbalance, termed ``imperial overstretch,'' will continue to erode US power. The pessimists do not mean to write the obituary for the US, but rather to call it to reform.
Optimists argue that American power is preeminent. They say that the US has grown more rapidly than Western or Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and much of the third world. They accept that US trade and budget deficits can limit American ability to affect world events, but point out that the US has basically won the postwar competition with the Soviets. American military and economic power is unmatched, and its influence has contributed recently, for example, to democracy in the Philippines and South Korea, the conclusion of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and a large allied effort to protect sea lanes in the Gulf. American values - competition, free markets, individual freedom, and private initiative - are ascendant.
A third view argues that, although American power is not declining, other nations are emerging. US power and position now depend on many events beyond US control, such as Soviet and Chinese reforms, Japanese economic growth, and European unity. The US can rebuild the economic base of its power and strengthen its military alliances, but must realize that the world has become more complex, with more actors and more issues.
The debate raises basic questions: Do Americans want the US to play a leading world role? Are they willing to accept the responsibilities associated with it? If the US does not play such a role, what happens?
Most Americans are convinced the US has a strong and beneficial role to play in the world. They are proud of US accomplishments such as the Camp David agreement, the INF Treaty, and the fight for human rights and for a fair and stable economic system. They believe the US uses its power to preserve peace and freedom.
Yet Americans are questioning the costs of leadership. They wonder whether it is time to worry less about other nations, and more about themselves. Their frustration and resentment are growing because of economic problems and what seem to be unresponsive and ungrateful allies. Many believe foreign competition is to blame for US economic woes, and worry about US ability to compete. They see other countries rising at its expense, even with its help, and argue that, if the US scales down its overseas commitments, it could better solve domestic problems. They call for others to assume a greater share of worldwide military and economic costs.
As budgetary problems mount, hard choices will have to be made. Pressures to reduce US commitments abroad will only increase. In considering its proper role in the world, the US must weigh the responsibilities of leadership and the implications of reduced or non-involvement. Few believe a return to isolationism is possible.
My view is that American leadership remains crucial to world security and well-being. Each president and Congress in the postwar era has recognized these global responsibilities. No other nation can provide the broad security umbrella that has kept peace in Europe for more than 40 years. No other country can deter the Soviet military threat. The US must be willing to defend, with military force if necessary, its vital interests and work with its allies for the common defense. But it should also respond to change. Reform in the Soviet Union - greater freedom, improved human rights, and changes in Soviet foreign policy - presents new opportunities. Washington should test the new Soviet leadership to make progress on the wide range of issues dividing us.
America's prosperity also requires involvement in world affairs. It can no longer just keep its own house in order: The world is too small and interdependent. Investment decisions in Japan, budget choices in West Germany, and debt crises in the third world directly affect the health of the American economy. The US must work with other nations to enhance fair trade, global economic growth, and its own economic vitality.
It should recognize that military force is neither the first nor the preferred method to resolve international disputes. Many of today's pressing problems - the Iran-Iraq war, the spread of missile and nuclear technology, environmental pollution, malnutrition and famine, terrorism, and drug trafficking - require a willingness to work for negotiated settlements. These problems cannot be resolved without concerted international action and leadership. The US should also work to advance a respect for human rights and individual liberties. The world is diverse. The US does not want to dictate to others, but its values must be defended against both the totalitarian left and the authoritarian right.
Over and over I am impressed with how nations around the world turn to the US for leadership across a wide range of problems. US power is neither absolute nor unchallenged, but the nation has a capacity to influence the outcome of events that no other country can match. There is no one to take its place. Remaining a key world player is the best way to further US interests, promote the values and principles in which the US believes, and make the world a better place.
Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana is ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and chairman of its Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East.