Is it time for Obama to start making friends with other world leaders?
In today’s Washington Post Jackson Diehl writes about something that has puzzled me for a while: President Obama has not cultivated the close working relationships with other world leaders that previous presidents have. This is triply paradoxical. On the one hand, Obama is exceptionally popular abroad with elites and the general public. Leaders pay relatively little political ...
In today's Washington Post Jackson Diehl writes about something that has puzzled me for a while: President Obama has not cultivated the close working relationships with other world leaders that previous presidents have.
In today’s Washington Post Jackson Diehl writes about something that has puzzled me for a while: President Obama has not cultivated the close working relationships with other world leaders that previous presidents have.
This is triply paradoxical. On the one hand, Obama is exceptionally popular abroad with elites and the general public. Leaders pay relatively little political cost in working closely with Obama, unlike, for example, the abuse Prime Minister Blair suffered for his close relationship with Bush.
On the other hand, to the extent that Obama has put his own stamp on American grand strategy so far it has been in the extraordinary lengths he has gone rhetorically to accommodate the complaints levied against the United States. Indeed, the heart of Obama’s first year strategy has been restoring the "soft power asset base" of the United States by conceding many foreign critiques, clearing the decks for leaders to start anew with America if they want to. This may help explain the first hand, Obama’s general popularity.
And on the third hand, the dictates of international diplomacy inevitably focus on the personalized diplomacy of the top leaders. This was true even when communications technology frustrated the effort; consider the risks President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill ran to hold a secret summit in the North Atlantic. This is even more true today when the communications/transportations costs of close contact between global leaders approaches zero. The president’s time is still a scarce and precious resource, sought by far more global demandeurs than the White House can satisfy. But beyond this constraint, there is practically no limit to the closeness of the personal relationship that the president can build with other leaders — if he wants to.
And there is the rub. President Obama has not made developing those relationships a priority, not yet anyway. Such relationships usually develop with our closest national allies and great powers, but relations with those countries have all suffered over the past year or so. Russia is the only great power whose relations with the United States have arguably improved over the last year and so it is no accident that Medvedev is the first name to pass the laugh test of those that White House handlers floated to Diehl when he asked for an example of a close partner. If Medvedev does deliver strong Russian support for a top U.S. foreign policy priority like Iranian sanctions, then this may be an important exception — but even then, it will be an exception that proves a more general rule of distant relations, and there is a good chance that it is not even the exception.
Close personal relations are hardly a panacea. They do not guarantee global support in the abstract, as measured by opinion polls, nor in the concrete when measured by foreign governments’ willingness to make politically costly moves that bolster U.S. foreign policies. But bad relations do complicate foreign policy, as Bush discovered when the fractious relationship with Chirac and Schroeder contaminated efforts at coercive diplomacy with Iraq in 2002-2003. And so he went to great lengths to forge a closer personal partnership with the successors in Paris and Berlin in part because of the painful experience. In doing so, he followed a pattern discernible in every presidency in modern times. And the priority presidents assigned to developing those relations has only intensified in recent decades.
Did they err in doing so, or is Obama erring in breaking the pattern? Or has Obama found a new way of personal diplomacy that we in the bleachers are missing?
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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