THE BLOG
11/13/2013 10:54 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Two Principles to Guide American Foreign Policy

Voltaire's 1764 book Dictionnaire Philosophique quotes an Italian proverb, "Le meglio è l'inimico del bene," which translates to "The best is the enemy of the good." Often rendered as "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," it counsels us against pursuing the impossible (perfection) over the achievable (a "good" outcome, however defined).

Two variants of this maxim can contribute to the conduct of American foreign policy.

Don't let the aspirational be the enemy of the urgent.

Some observers lament that China has yet to become a Western-style democracy, even with its middle class growing more vocal and Internet penetration soaring (indeed, according to "Document Number 9," a directive that senior leaders of the Chinese Communist Party sent to party cadres this August, "advocating Western constitutional democracy" is one of the seven principal threats to the Party's hold on power). There's little reason to expect that a country that is several millennia old and convinced of its own exceptionalism will feel obliged to adopt a radically different system of governance. Others worry that China isn't evolving quickly enough into a "responsible stakeholder." Given that it had little, if any, role in shaping the norms, arrangements, and institutions that have defined the international system in the postwar era, it's unlikely to subscribe to a notion of responsibility that entails upholding such precepts. Yet others have expressed concern that the United States and China seem unable to forge a "new model" of great-power dynamics. Considering the chasm between their values, understandings of history, and foreign policies, they should acknowledge the possibility that they may never do so.

These realities need not, however -- indeed, must not -- distract from the more pressing imperatives of U.S.-China relations: avoiding a military confrontation, averting a new Cold War in which countries such as Australia have to "pick" one country over the other, and ensuring that the competitive interactions between them don't race ahead of the collaborative ones. Nor should they create the impression that U.S.-China relations are incapable of moving forward. Chinese President Xi Jinping rightly told Henry Kissinger this April that the two countries will progress by "an accumulation of dribs and drabs."

Don't let nostalgia be the enemy of adjustment.

The U.S. shouldn't fixate on remaining the world's largest economy; as long as China's growth rate exceeds America's, its GDP will eventually overtake America's. Moreover, despite renewed optimism about developed economies and newfound concern about emerging ones, the southward and eastward diffusion of economic power ("the great convergence") doesn't appear to be a passing phenomenon. To stay competitive, the U.S. should continue the deleveraging that it has been undertaking since the 2008-09 global financial crisis; capitalize on the natural-gas boom at home; move forward on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and Trans-Pacific Partnership; and modernize its immigration and higher-education systems to ensure that they're as enticing as possible to global talent.

Nor should the U.S. look back fondly on the imaginary time when it was a hegemon; as Robert Kagan and Joseph Nye, among others, have persuasively documented, it has never been able to dictate the course of international affairs, even when much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins after the Second World War. This mistaken nostalgia lays the foundation for one of two imprudent courses: retrenchment (caricature: "we're in decline, and there's no way we'll be as influential as we once were, so we might as well cut our losses abroad and just tend to our own garden") or overextension (caricature: "global peace and prosperity depend on U.S. hegemony, so we should deploy military power more often and undertake more aggressively to alter the internal dynamics of unfriendly countries"). It's not only the global balance of influence that's changing rapidly; the pathways from power to influence are also growing more complex in an era of technologically-savvy nonstate actors. As the winds of change blow, the U.S. should focus more on adjusting its sails than on building a bigger boat.