Shadow Government

If you want a friend in Washington, look abroad

This recent Politico story raises again what remains an ongoing puzzle of President Obama’s administration: Why has Obama thus far failed to form substantial friendships with other world leaders?  Now well into the third year of his presidency, Obama’s lack of personal connections with his global counterparts stands in sharp contrast to just about all ...

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

This recent Politico story raises again what remains an ongoing puzzle of President Obama’s administration: Why has Obama thus far failed to form substantial friendships with other world leaders?  Now well into the third year of his presidency, Obama’s lack of personal connections with his global counterparts stands in sharp contrast to just about all of his modern-day predecessors. President George W. Bush enjoyed strong friendships with multiple leaders, particularly Britain’s Tony Blair, Australia’s John Howard, Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar, and Japan’s Junichiro Koizumi. President Clinton’s tight bonds with many leaders included Blair and Boris Yeltsin. President George H.W. Bush’s global friendships were legion, including John Major and Helmut Kohl, as were Reagan’s alliances with the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, and even Pope John Paul II. Even President Carter, who had fewer friendships on the global stage, depended on his personal bond with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to complete the Camp David peace accords.

The question of relational bonds is not a trivial matter of procuring gossipy material for a future presidential memoir or expanding the tight circle of golf buddies. It is a core component of statecraft. An effective foreign policy includes at least four elements: a strategy and policy priorities, the resources (economic, diplomatic, military) to carry out the strategy, the system to implement the strategy, and the personal relationships with other leaders that facilitate development and advancement of the strategy and policies at both ends. This last element is the one that you won’t learn about in international relations textbooks or graduate seminars, but as just about any experienced policy-maker will say, it is essential to the craft of foreign policy.

Close personal ties can often be forged in the crucible of a crisis as leaders work together to address a common problem. But the most enduring relationships are often ones that a president establishes proactively, before a crisis hits. Former Secretary of State George Shultz famously described this as the "gardening" process, in which a president or cabinet official proactively cultivates friendships with other leaders for their own sakes, with the understanding that such links might be extraordinarily useful when a crisis hits, as they almost invariably do.

The decisions foreign leaders make about whether to support a U.S. initiative or not take into account numerous factors, including their national interests and domestic politics. But a significant factor is often that leader’s personal relationship with the U.S. president — does he or she respect, trust, understand, and like the president? Will he leverage his personal and political capital on behalf of the president? Does he feel like his advice will be taken into account by the president?

Admittedly, President Obama has been dealt a somewhat weak hand among his foreign counterparts. Traditional U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific such as Japan and Australia have been struggling with weak governments and frequent leadership changes, while our European allies such as France and Germany are led by the erratic Nicolas Sarkozy and the vacillating Angela Merkel – although, as my German Marshall Fund colleague Stephen Szabo has written, the White House was wise to roll out the red carpet for Merkel not as a reward for past reliability but as an inducement for future steadfastness. But there are still candidates aplenty, such as Indian Prime Minister and fellow intellectual Manmohan Singh, or Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or especially Britain’s David Cameron, whom, as I have written previously, would seem to be a natural Obama friend — and after their ping-pong match the other week, may well be on the way to becoming one.

Will Inboden is executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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