The challenges of presidential diplomacy
By Peter Feaver A quick follow-up to my earlier post about the difficulty of exerting leverage over allies. A recent Washington Post story about President Obama’s efforts to recalibrate the relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai reminds me of four additional lessons that pertain to this corner of statecraft. First, presidents are the Diplomat-in-Chief, and ...
By Peter Feaver
By Peter Feaver
A quick follow-up to my earlier post about the difficulty of exerting leverage over allies. A recent Washington Post story about President Obama’s efforts to recalibrate the relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai reminds me of four additional lessons that pertain to this corner of statecraft.
First, presidents are the Diplomat-in-Chief, and this leads inevitably, for better or for worse, to "personal diplomacy." Candidate Bush criticized President Clinton for over-personalizing diplomacy, especially with regard to Yasir Arafat. And then over the course of his tenure, Bush followed similarly personalized diplomacy, especially with allies (cf. Blair, Merkel, Howard, Musharraf, Karzai, and the various Iraqi leaders). Obama arrives with the same critique about his predecessor. We will see whether he can resist the draw of personal diplomacy, but I rather doubt he will be able to do so because…
Second, personal diplomacy is grounded not in the narcissism of presidential politics but rather in some practical realities. What other leaders most want that is easiest to regulate (and thus use as leverage) is direct access to the president. Leader-to-leader diplomacy is often the most efficient way to cut deals that are stymied by lower level bureaucratic politics. Leader-to-leader diplomacy becomes the media story whether administrations want it to be or not because it fits the favored narrative arcs of reporters and commentators.
Third, because of the foregoing, minimizing leader-to-leader talks in an effort to "depersonalize" diplomacy is, in fact, another form of personal diplomacy (just as refusing to hold direct talks with adversaries is just another form of diplomacy). Bad personal interactions (think Bush and Chirac or Bush and Schroeder) can have the same degree of repercussions as good personal interactions, just in a different direction. Thus, the effort to depersonalize interactions with Afghanistan as a way of distinguishing from Bush-Karzai diplomacy will, paradoxically, generate its own story line about personal diplomacy. Witness the Post story itself.
Fourth, as Rumsfeld might have put it, one goes to war with the allies one has, not the allies one wants to have. One of the most frustrating things about conducting American foreign policy (as distinct from commenting on it from the outside) is the limits on American influence to get allies (or international institutions like the UN) to do what the strategy calls for them to do. Making progress on this usually involves some mix of bolstering a weak leader/institution and cajoling it into action by credibly threatening to go around or above the leader/institution. In the Afghan case, what we need Karzai to do — for instance, crack down on corruption and the narcotics trade — is viewed by Karzai as close to regime-threatening. So it is an open question whether he is more likely to take such difficult steps if he is reassured about his regime survivability (bolstering) or believes his regime is even more imperiled if he does not act (threatening go-arounds). Most statecraft evolves by trying a bit of this and then a bit of that and then ultimately making a bet on one side or the other. (By the way, for the political science students out there, this is the same analytical structure of the puzzle that confronted the Bush administration regarding getting the UN to enforce sanctions/inspections in Iraq in 2002).
I suspect this fourth lesson could prove especially frustrating as this year unfolds. The Obama administration might even flirt with the idea of seeking to influence the outcome of the Afghan elections in the hopes of getting a better leader. Such efforts, especially in fledgling democracies, are not impossible to pull off, but they tend to come with manifold unintended consequences even if they succeed. And an effort that fails, may be worse than no effort at all, because it leaves in place an embittered leader who now has every incentive to make political hay out of rebuffing American requests.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
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