Daniel W. Drezner

The dilemmas of cold fish diplomacy

The dilemmas of cold fish diplomacy

In the New York Times, Mark Landler and Peter Baker review Barack Obama’s personal diplomacy with other world leaders, and find it wanting.  They make a pretty interesting case: 

While tangling with the leaders of two cold war antagonists of the United States is nothing new, the two bruising encounters in such a short span underscore a hard reality for Mr. Obama as he heads deeper into a second term that may come to be dominated by foreign policy: his main counterparts on the world stage are not his friends, and they make little attempt to cloak their disagreements in diplomatic niceties.

Even his friends are not always so friendly. On Wednesday, for example, the president is to meet in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who has invited him to deliver a speech at the Brandenburg Gate. But Ms. Merkel is also expected to press Mr. Obama about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, which offend privacy-minded Germans.

For all of his effort to cultivate personal ties with foreign counterparts over the last four and a half years — the informal “shirt-sleeves summit” with Mr. Xi was supposed to nurture a friendly rapport that White House aides acknowledge did not materialize — Mr. Obama has complicated relationships with some, and has bet on others who came to disappoint him….

Mr. Obama differs from his most recent predecessors, who made personal relationships with leaders the cornerstone of their foreign policies. The first George Bush moved gracefully in foreign capitals, while Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush related to fellow leaders as politicians, trying to understand their pressures and constituencies.

“That’s not President Obama’s style,” said James B. Steinberg, Mr. Clinton’s deputy national security adviser and Mr. Obama’s deputy secretary of state.

Such relationships matter, Mr. Steinberg said, but they are not the driving force behind a leader’s decision making. “They do what they believe is in the interest of their country and they’re not going to do it differently just because they have a good relationship with another leader,” he said.

It is to Landler and Baker’s credit that they provide the appropriate context to this phenomenon in their story.  Personal relationships — especially with rival great powers — don’t count for a hell of a lot. As they note, "Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush forged strong partnerships with their Russian counterparts, Boris Yeltsin and Mr. Putin, respectively. But even that did not prevent ruptures over NATO military action in Kosovo and the Russian war in Georgia."  So even if the Obama administration did not go the extra mile in wooing the leader of China, for example, it likely wouldn’t have mattered much. 

So can we leave it at the "nations have ‘only permanent interests’" conclusion?  I fear neither life nor world politics is that simple.  My concern reading Baker and Landler’s story isn’t about the lack of warmth between Obama and great power rivals, but rather the lack of warmth between Obama and U.S. allies.  The story notes that relations with French president Francoise Hollande are strained for a number of reasons.  Obama has made committed numerous small faux-pas with his British counterparts as well.  Landler and Baker fail to identify any personal relationship between Obama and an allied leader that is particularly warm (though Chuck Todd suggests Angela Merkel).  The only "warm personal relationship" the press has identified between Obama and a current world leader is Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  Unfortunately, as Indian foreign policy analysts like to stress, the United States is not their ally and New Delhi is not ready for prime time on the global diplomatic stage anyway. 

It would seem that Obama has a deficit of close personal allies and confidantes at G-20 meetings or other confabs.  Which isn’t exactly a big deal but seems a bit problematic.  Sometimes advice from staffers, underlings, or even cabinet members can be dismissed in a way that advice from a nominal peer cannot.  All leaders — especially powerful ones — are served well by a coterie of allies who can speak truth to power. 

That’s how things should work in theory to correct misperceptions and the like.  In practice, of course, it’s worth remembering that Tony Blair was both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s closest friend on the global stage.  Those friendships produced… mixed results.  So maybe, in the end, this is a big bunch of nothing. 

What do you think?