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You have to be a regular visitor to the furthest reaches of business news websites to be up to speed on the controversy over dealing with the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) China has organized. Which is a shame, because the issues involved bring up our most fundamental ideas about how international relations are actually carried out and how they should be carried out.  They show how violently many of them clash.  And they point to the dangers of learning the wrong lessons.

The bank is an institution that Beijing says will serve two main purposes. First, it will speed up lending to Asian countries for urgently needed infrastructure projects that has been slowed by concerns about adequate spending controls, environmental standards, merit-based contracting practices, and similar conditions typically attached by existing development organizations like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Second, it will give Asians more control over their own destinies, because those existing aid organizations are still dominated by Western countries – and by extension the supposedly Western values epitomized by their aforementioned policies.

The United States initially opposed the AIIB’s creation. But when China pushed ahead anyway, Washington began focusing on urging its regional allies and other Asian countries, as well as prospective non-Asian donor governments, to give it the cold shoulder. Unfortunately, many of these countries have ignored U.S. wishes, too – including Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and probably Australia.

The results add up to a major setback for American diplomacy – but also a self-inflicted one. U.S. leaders have viewed the Bank’s creation as part of a Chinese master plan to ensure that the rules of commerce in the economically dynamic Asia-Pacific region are written by free market countries and therefore reflect free market norms, rather than by Beijing and other champions of more secretive, more discriminatory, and more nationalistic practices. In addition to opposing the Bank’s creation, the Obama administration also has sought to respond by concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, whose provisions it believes will lock the region into a free market future, and create incentives for countries seeking to join (like China) to change their ways.

But China’s successes are just the latest reminder that Washington completely misunderstands the forces that separate the winners from the losers not only in Asian politics, but around the world. For as widely reported, even America’s closest partners are cooperating with China because the lure of Chinese economic power, and the promise of increasing access to China’s enormous actual and potential market, have proven irresistible. All maintain generally free market, and thus rule-based, economic systems at home.  But none of these governments seems concerned about entering arrangements with countries like China, which actively reject the primacy of rules and all of their corollaries, like openness, and accountability to consumers, voters, and the like.

In other words, President Obama’s focus on rule-writing is completely misplaced. Fortunately, the United States has ample power of its own. In fact, as the most important final market by far for all countries currently involved in the TPP negotiations, and for all countries hoping to join, as well as the military protector of many of these nations (and of the Europeans flocking to the AIIB), the United States should have no trouble keeping the lid on China’s influence. A simple declaration that “If you want the benefits of trade with and protection by the United States, you need to act like it,” should suffice – along of course with the determination to walk this walk.

But the most important ingredient for this strategy is a U.S. chief executive who recognizes that world affairs is still mostly jungle, not civics class. Troublingly, the record indicates that Americans won’t get one until January, 2017 at the earliest.