All peoples, however well or badly governed, are presently or potentially our friends. But no government can expect to be our overriding friend. It is as true now as when Talleyrand said it that nations do not have permanent friends, they just have permanent interests.
Our judgment, in each particular case, should be heavily weighted in favor of the long-run relationship between the American people and the peoples of the other country or countries involved. That purpose is seldom served by the effusive nonsense which so often characterizes the personalized diplomacy of summit meetings. This is not a partisan comment: It applies as well to President Carter's short-lived prediction of the Shah's longevity as to Vice-President Bush's euphoric toast to President Marcos: ''We love your adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process.''
Everywhere, the status quo is on the way out. In a volatile and turbulent world, half a hundred governments are likely to change next year, and the year after that - sometimes by constitutional but more often by extraconstitutional process. Diplomacy is mostly the art of getting along with the sitting government. But in so dynamic a political environment, the American people have at least an equal interest in getting along with the next government, and the one after that.
What our government says and does, how and when we compromise our stated principles (human rights, free enterprise, basic human needs, opposition to communism or apartheid or trade barriers), should be said and done with an eye to the effect on those future relationships. If, to select an example not wholly at random, we encourage a sitting government to drag its feet on land reform, we can hardly expect cooperation on strategic issues from the land reformers who may take over next.
We have not been skillful at masterminding or even forecasting political transition in other societies. But the United States government can at least position itself so as not to make the unseating of each sitting government a defeat for the American people.
In reaching out to ''next governments'' around the world, the US has the enormous advantage of its credible pluralism. With marginal exceptions US business people, trade union leaders, farmers, scientists, engineers, professors , journalists, and especially students and other young people, can travel the world without being taken for agents of their government, whatever its political complexion.
By the same token, we welcome here each year many thousands of key people - leaders and leaders-to-be - from nearly every country on earth. Many of them spend some time being briefed on US policies; but all of them spend most of their time getting to know Americans from every walk of life, every sector of society, every shade of opinion.
This ''getting to know you'' experience should be considered a major part of US foreign policy. It does not guarantee political support by our visitors, or those we visit, of whatever a US government may temporarily emit as ''policy.'' But a healthy flow of Americans overseas, and a comparable flow to the US of leaders and potential leaders from other countries, guarantees that ''next governments'' around the world will contain some people who understand that American governance may be messy but is not really messianic, and that democratic pluralism and nonviolent transitions of power are practical propositions even in a continental society.
It may be that the votes our senators and representatives cast each year on educational exchange programs are the most important - and the most cost-effective - policy they are privileged to make about international peace.