Does Obama not like other world leaders?

Der Spiegel reports that the U.S. president is passing up an official visit to Berlin when he heads to Europe in June for the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landing, in favor of a more personal stopover: On Tuesday, the news became public that a White House advance team is currently in the eastern German ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
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NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (2nd R) talks with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (3rd R) alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R), French President Nicholas Sarkozy (2nd L) and US President Barack Obama (L) before posing for a family photo from Kehl, Germany to Strasbourg, France on April 4, 2009 in Strasbourg during the NATO summit. The summit, which marks the organisation's 60th anniversary, is taking place on April 3 and 4, 2009 in Strasbourg, France and the neighbouring German cities of Baden-Baden and Kehl. AFP PHOTO / Saul Loeb (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Der Spiegel reports that the U.S. president is passing up an official visit to Berlin when he heads to Europe in June for the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landing, in favor of a more personal stopover:

On Tuesday, the news became public that a White House advance team is currently in the eastern German city of Dresden, where they are looking for possible accommodations for the president. In addition to a short visit to the city on the Elbe River, the president is also intending to visit the memorial at the former Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald. Obama's great-uncle, Charlie Payne, served in the 89th Infantry Division during World War II and participated in the liberation of Ohrdruf, a forced labor camp that was a satellite camp of Buchenwald. ...

Der Spiegel reports that the U.S. president is passing up an official visit to Berlin when he heads to Europe in June for the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landing, in favor of a more personal stopover:

On Tuesday, the news became public that a White House advance team is currently in the eastern German city of Dresden, where they are looking for possible accommodations for the president. In addition to a short visit to the city on the Elbe River, the president is also intending to visit the memorial at the former Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald. Obama’s great-uncle, Charlie Payne, served in the 89th Infantry Division during World War II and participated in the liberation of Ohrdruf, a forced labor camp that was a satellite camp of Buchenwald. …

An official visit by Obama to Berlin seems highly unlikely during the German election campaign — even though Chancellor Merkel for one would prefer the popular US president to make an official appearance at the Chancellery instead of touring around the states of Saxony and Thuringia.

Obama’s already cut short a talk with Gordon Brown for a meeting with the Boy Scouts and bumped Lula for St. Patrick’s Day. Now he’s snubbing the chancellor of Germany for a couple days of tourism? (The German government also can’t be thrilled that Obama’s most memorable photo-op is likely to be at a concentration camp.)

So what’s the deal? Does Obama just not like hanging out with other world leaders?

For a while last fall, I unsuccesfully tried to start an Internet meme by labelling other leader’s attempts to associate themselves with Obama as “hopejacking.” Since taking office, Obama seems to have been making a conscious effort to prevent this phenomenon by keeping eager leaders at arm’s length. Consider this excerpt from Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s piece today on the Obama administration’s relationship with Hamid Karzai:

Ten days before Obama’s inauguration, Karzai told Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. during a private meeting in Kabul that he looked forward to building with Obama the same sort of chummy relationship he had with Bush, which included frequent videoconferences and personal visits.

“Well, it’s going to be different,” Biden replied, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation. “You’ll probably talk to him or see him a couple of times a year. You’re not going to be talking to him every week.”

Obama advisers believe the relationship that Bush developed with Karzai masked the Afghan leader’s flaws and made it difficult to demand accountability. Obama has not held a videoconference with Karzai, and the two have spoken by phone just twice. The administration rebuffed Karzai’s request for a bilateral visit to Washington this spring, telling him he could come only as part of this week’s tripartite summit with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, according to U.S. government officials. Karzai’s meeting with Obama today is scheduled for 20 minutes, as is Zardari’s. 

For a president who came into office promising to stop neglecting America’s allies, Obama doesn’t seem particularly excited to talk to them. Critics have charged that Obama has seemed more chummy with Hugo Chávez and Dmitry Medvedev than with staunch U.S. allies like Brown, Sarkozy, and Karzai, but I think the more pertinent point is that Obama seems to be basically friendly to all other world leaders without developing a close relationship with any of them.

Some of this may just be personality. Obama has been branded as aloof and cerebral since he was campaigning on the south side of Chicago and the reputation (seemingly with some justification) has dogged him ever since.

But there’s likely also a deliberate effort, as Chandrasekaran suggests, to move away from George W. Bush’s more personal style of diplomacy. (Peter Feaver has more on this over at Shadow Government.) This style led Bush to stand by some dubious leaders (Karzai, Pervez Musharraf, Vladimir Putin) with whom he had a close personal relationship while being inordinately preoccupied by belligerent leaders (Chávez, Saddam Hussein) who ultimately didn’t prove that much of a threat.

I understand Obama’s desire to change, and Bush-style personal diplomacy certainly doesn’t seem suited to his temperment, but I worry when the U.S. president seems to want to treat other world leaders like students coming in for office hours. Nobody’s suggesting they play a round of hoops, but 20 minutes each just doesn’t seem like enough face time to give the leaders of two countries that are vital to U.S. security, no matter what he might think of them.

During his campaign, Obama argued to voters that speaking with other leaders doesn’t imply support or agreement. 100+ days in, it’s not clear when all that talking is going to start. David Brooks wrote a somewhat corny but basically perceptive column last summer arguing that there are really two Obamas, the cerebral “Dr. Barack” and “Fast Eddie Obama,” the wheeling and dealing Chicago pol. I’m glad to have Dr. Barack designing U.S. strategy, but I sometimes wish we could send Fast Eddie to the meetings.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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