Getting to second base in American foreign policy
© Getty Images

Foreign policy successes don't always have to be huge victories like ending the Iraq War or solving Middle East peace. In today’s complex world, small wins are worth celebrating, even if they are not home runs.

Take, for example, the news that the United States and the government of the Philippines are signing a 10-year defense cooperation agreement. That's huge. For a decade, the U.S. has invested in an anti-terrorism task force in the southern Philippines (the Joint Special Operations Task Force) to assist in fighting an al Qaeda-like organization, Abu Sayyaf. The investment by the U.S. Pacific Command has paid off. American special forces will stay in the region, but at reduced strength as the counterterrorism task force winds down. Although the threat from Abu Sayyaf is not entirely gone, enough progress has been made to warrant downsizing the mission. Under the new pact, American ships and assets can be deployed and the Philippine military gets training and assistance. It's a win-win.

American engagement in the Philippines is a good news story. We no longer have permanent bases there as we once had with Clark Air Force Base and the naval base in Subic Bay, both of which were closed in the early 1990s. But the Philippine government has remained open to an American military presence and to creating interoperability with U.S. forces. At a time of growing tensions in Asia, with China and Japan arguing over islands in the South China Sea and North Korea flexing its rhetorical muscle, the new pact is worth its weight in gold.

For the Obama administration, which is struggling to meet challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine and other hot spots, having success on the international front matters. The U.S.-Philippine agreement might not merit a Rose Garden ceremony or make the front page, but it is important to underscore its value. Part of America's global challenge in 2014 and beyond is to lower its sights without losing its voice. We can promote democracy, prosperity and security. But turning those into concrete achievements may mean settling for a bit less than a home run each time.

Sonenshine is a distinguished fellow at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. She previously served as under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs.