Lugar and Hamilton: Congress should engage on foreign policy

America's role should be to provide leadership, protect its own interests and work with other nations to make the world more peaceful and prosperous, former Sen. Richard Lugar and former Rep. Lee Hamilton told an Indiana University audience Wednesday.

"I want the United States to take an active role," Hamilton said. "We don't call them all right, but I'm of the school of thought that thinks the world is a better place because of U.S. leadership."

Lugar and Hamilton shared a panel on the first day of the two-day America's Role in the World conference sponsored by the IU School of Global and International Studies on the Bloomington campus. In a discussion moderated by IU alumna and former State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, they discussed foreign policy and the legislative role from the perspective of their combined seven decades in Congress.

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Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, right, makes a point with former Sen. Richard Lugar, left, and moderator Marie Harf. Ann Schertz

Lugar is a distinguished scholar and professor of practice at the School of Global and International Studies. Hamilton is a distinguished scholar at the School of Global and International Studies and a professor of practice at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Both said the U.S. will be more effective in the world if it leads in cooperation with other nations. They rejected the idea, implied by President Donald Trump's approach, that foreign policy and trade agreements are contests in which there must be winners and losers.

"It seems to me, in our foreign policy, we never accepted the idea of winners and losers," said Hamilton, a Democrat who represented Indiana's 9th District in the House for 34 years. "That's very strange to the traditional view of American foreign policy. The idea is, we're all in this together."

Lugar, a Republican and the longest-serving senator in Indiana history, offered implied criticism of Trump's lukewarm support of NATO and rejection of multilateral trade agreements, the Paris climate agreement and the multi-party Iran nuclear agreement.

Both speakers said that, while the American president is responsible for implementing foreign policy, Congress has an important role in setting policy and providing oversight.

Lugar recalled his work with Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn to establish a program to secure thousands of nuclear warheads after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Initially, he said, officials in the executive branch weren't happy about two senators playing such a key foreign policy role. But they changed their tune after a trip in which they saw the unsecured weapons first hand.

"As I say, we all got religion together," he said.

Lugar said he is alarmed that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin now want to develop new generations of more effective or tactical nuclear weapons.

"We're back into what is, if not an arms race, something that's suspiciously like one," he said.

Asked whether Congress should prohibit the president from launching a nuclear attack without congressional approval, Hamilton cited the Constitution, which says the president is commander in chief of the military but only Congress can declare war. A nuclear strike, he said, would amount to launching a war.

"I don't trust the president to do that, and I don't trust the Congress to do it," Hamilton said. "The best answer is the answer the Constitution provides: shared responsibility."