Daniel W. Drezner

Michelle Obama’s diplomatic misstep

Michelle Obama’s diplomatic misstep

I blog today in criticism of Michelle Obama.  No, not for this, which seemed to attract a lot of Twitter attention last night.  Rather, for this little item tucked inside Mark Landler and Jackie Calmes’ New York Times story about the preparations for the Obama-Xi summit

There are limits to the coziness. Mr. Xi will not stay on the estate but at a nearby Hyatt hotel — a reflection of Chinese concerns about eavesdropping, according to a person familiar with the planning. Translators will be required, since Mr. Xi is not fluent in English. And while Mr. Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, is traveling with him, Michelle Obama is not planning to accompany her husband, which will deprive the meeting of a layer of informality.

This is a bit surprising, as the press reports I’d seen prior to this story had suggested that the first lady was accompanying the president to the summit.  Indeed, this Atlantic story of less than a day ago was built on the premise of a first lady tête-à-tête.   

In a follow-up, Calmes and Jane Perlez offer some more disturbing details:

Mr. Obama will be stag: Michelle Obama plans to remain in Washington with their daughters, who finish the school year this week, her office confirmed on Tuesday.

For a presidential meeting that is intended not so much for substantive agreements as for relationship-building between Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi, Mrs. Obama’s absence will rule out some extra dollops of personal diplomacy. And according to China experts in both countries, it is certain to be noticed by a Chinese public eager for the sight of their first lady joining America’s own groundbreaking presidential spouse on the global stage.

The Chinese “will be disappointed,” said Cheng Li, a senior fellow on China policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research organization. “They certainly have very high expectations for this meeting.”

“There will be more coverage in China than in the United States” of the Obama-Xi visit, Mr. Li predicted, and since the Chinese are “extremely sensitive,” Mrs. Obama’s absence “certainly needs some explanation.” But, he added, the Chinese will readily accept family obligations as the reason for Mrs. Obama’s absence….

On Thursday evening, as Mr. Obama flies toward California, Mrs. Obama will attend a fund-raiser in Washington for Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic Party chairman and Clinton confidant who is running for governor of Virginia. Her office would not provide further information about her weekend plans.

The Daily Telegraph finds another Chinese political scientist who isn’t happy: 

Zhang Ming, a political scientist from China’s Renmin University, predicted Mrs Obama’s absence would “not go down very well” in Beijing.

“First lady diplomacy is also very important and the US side has failed to cooperate,” he said. “According to normal diplomatic etiquette this is very strange. It shouldn’t be like this.

I have to say I agree.  In the grand scheme of things, the relationship between Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan doesn’t matter. That said, the major theme in all of Tom Donilon’s leaks the press coverage has been that this summit is about Obama and Xi trying to forge a good personal rapport so as to better define the bilateral relationship.  Furthermore, for the Chinese, this relationship is a lot about prestige.  Even small gestures that acknowledge the importance of China in the eyes of the United States can matter.  This is just smart diplomacy. 

Michelle Obama not attending the summit is a diplomatic own-goal that could easily have been avoided.  Now you have the semi-awkward situation of Peng Liyuan going to California without a counterpart to engage (which raises the question of when, exactly, it was decided that Mrs. Obama would not attend). 

Look, I get that being the First Lady must be fraught with political peril at times, and that the wife/wife interaction feels just a bit retro.  And I get that Michelle Obama has focused — rightfully — on being a good mother to her children.  But this is one of the few moments during her husband’s term of office where what she does matters a small amount to world politics. 

She should be in California. 

P.S.:  While we’re talking about the odd minutiae of the Obama-Xi summit, I’m also flummoxed as to why the administration chose today to announce that Tom Donilon was stepping down as NSC Advisor.  Given that Donilon has been the point man on Sino-American relations, it just seems like awkward timing to announce that he’s leaving 48 hours before the summit.