Stephen M. Walt

Which countries does Obama talk about most and does it matter?

Steve Clemons had an interesting post up on his blog the other day, with the intriguing title "Obama’s Map: Which States are Hot and Which are Not?" Using a new search tool at the Washington Post website, Steve and his assistant scanned all of President Obama’s major speeches, interviews, and policy statements and counted the ...

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Steve Clemons had an interesting post up on his blog the other day, with the intriguing title "Obama’s Map: Which States are Hot and Which are Not?" Using a new search tool at the Washington Post website, Steve and his assistant scanned all of President Obama’s major speeches, interviews, and policy statements and counted the number of times different countries were mentioned. It’s not a comprehensive survey of all 192 countries, as Clemons searched on G20 members, some "states of interest" like Iran, and states highlighted in FP‘s own Failed States Index.

Clemons’s list made me wonder: What if you compared the number of times Obama mentioned a country against its population or GDP? This is an admittedly crude way of seeing which states might be getting disproportionate attention, at least relative to the number of people involved or their overall clout. It wouldn’t surprise us if Obama (or any other president) mentioned China or Japan or Brazil a lot, but it is potentially revealing when a state with a small population or a modest economy looms large in presidential rhetoric.

So I had my assistant — the indispensable Katie Naeve — divide the number of times Obama mentioned a country by its population (in millions) and its GDP (in billions). (We used data from the CIA World Factbook and the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, and the ratios given below are rounded off). As one would expect,  you end up with rather different rank-orderings:

No. of Obama Mentions

Mentions/Pop. (millions)

Mentions/GDP (billions)

Afghanistan (70)

Palestine (4.32)

Afghanistan (6.59)

China (58)

Israel (2.60)

Zimbabwe (6.25)

Iraq (54)

Afghanistan (2.41)

Haiti (2.36)

India (46)

Iraq (1.76)

Palestine (1.42)

Iran (43)

Haiti (1.72)

Somalia (0.89)

Pakistan (35)

Congo (0.83)

Guinea (0.79)

Russia (28)

North Korea (0.80)

Iraq (0.51)

Germany (25)

Canada (0.69)

North Korea (0.48)

Mexico (25)

Iran (0.60)

Congo (0.28)

South Korea (25)

Somalia (0.56)

Pakistan (0.21)

Canada (23)

South Korea (0.51)

Niger (0.19)

Israel (19)

South Africa (0.35)

Kenya (0.16)

North Korea (19)

Guinea (0.31)

Yemen (0.11)

France (17)

Germany (0.30)

Israel (0.09)

Haiti (17)

Australia (0.28)

South Africa (0.06)

Japan (17)

France (0.27)

Syria (0.05)

Palestine (17)

Saudi Arabia (0.24)

Iran (0.05)

South Africa (17)

Mexico (0.24)

Cote d’Ivoire (0.04)

Brazil (16)

Pakistan (0.21)

Ethiopia (0.04)

UK (8)

Russia (0.20)

Sudan (0.04)

Australia (6)

Cuba (0.18)

South Korea (0.03)

Indonesia (6)

Zimbabwe (0.16)

Mexico (0.02)

Saudi Arabia (6)

Syria (0.15)

Cuba (0.02)

Italy (5)

Japan (0.13)

Burma (0.02)

Kenya (5)

Yemen (0.13)

Russia (0.02)

Somalia (5)

UK (0.13)

Canada (0.02)

Turkey (5)

Kenya (0.13)

India (0.01)

Congo (3)

Italy (0.08)

China (0.01)

Guinea (3)

Brazil (0.08)

Saudi Arabia (0.01)

Syria (3)

Niger (0.07)

Indonesia (0.01)

Yemen (3)

Turkey (0.07)

Brazil (0.01)

Argentina (2)

Argentina (0.05)

Nigeria (0.01)

Cuba (2)

Cote d’Ivoire (0.05)

Germany (0.01)

Nigeria (2)

Sudan (0.05)

Turkey (0.01)

Sudan (2)

China (0.04)

Argentina (0.01)

Zimbabwe (2)

India (0.04)

France (0.01)

Burma (1)

Venezuela (0.04)

Australia (0.01)

Cote d’Ivoire (1)

Indonesia (0.03)

Japan (0.00)

Ethiopia (1)

Burma (0.02)

Venezuela (0.00)

Niger (1)

Nigeria (0.01)

UK (0.00)

Venezuela (1)

Ethiopia (0.01)

Italy (0.00)

Cent. African Republic (0)

Cent. African Republic (0.00)

Cent. African Republic (0.00)

Chad (0)

Chad (0.00)

Chad (0.00)

The results are interesting, if not especially surprising. First, once you control for population or GDP, the skewed nature of presidential attention becomes really obvious. China ranks right with Iraq in terms of absolute mentions, for example, but Iraq gets 1.76 mentions per million people and China only .04 per million. Second,  it obviously matters if you are a country where the United States is at war: hence Afghanistan and Iraq rank high on all three lists. Third, the U.S. preoccupation with Israel-Palestine is clearly reflected here: any U.S. president has to devote enormous attention to a very small number of people for reasons that I presumably don’t have to explain again.  Fourth, suffering a major national disaster — as Haiti did — will raise a country’s salience, even if the population is small and poor.

The other rather obvious lesson one might draw from this is two-fold: 1) Presidents don’t have complete control over their agendas; and 2) Obama is spending most of his time talking about problem-areas rather than success stories. Big, stable, and prosperous countries don’t get as much attention for the simple reason that they don’t need that much attention; it’s the poor, weak, conflict-prone, and intractable ones that keep demanding Obama’s time. 

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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