I’ve been struck recently by news coverage of humans’ degradation of the planet. Two opposing themes keep appearing. One is the sense that, as individuals, there’s little we can do. The other: As citizens of the planet we have a responsibility to protect it and to pass it on in good shape to those who follow us.

So how do we reconcile these warring impulses – not just on the environment, but on many global and international issues? How do we engage with the world?

As Americans, we are global citizens. The world has problems we can’t afford to ignore, and we inhabit a preeminent world power with a responsibility to lead.

What does this mean for us as citizens? It means we have an obligation to inform ourselves about the world we live in. We should learn about international affairs, visit other countries if we can, learn a foreign language, read what foreign leaders have to say. We should engage with people from elsewhere and work to understand the challenges that other countries confront.

Beyond that, we ought to be first in line to respond to humanitarian disasters and to raise our voices in support of innocent people who have been mistreated. We should try to reduce conflict and improve the quality of life for all.

America can’t solve all the world’s problems alone. We need the help of others and should welcome it. We have to reserve the right to use force as a last resort, but diplomacy and development should be our preferred tools.

I’m uneasy talking about “American exceptionalism.” I’m far more comfortable when we show we’re exceptional. If we really are exceptional, others will notice.

When all is said and done, we need to look at our responsibilities as global citizens quietly and confidently, with humility, and try to contribute to a safer, more prosperous world.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.

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