Shadow Government

Obama and diplomacy: Getting by without much help from his friends?

Last summer I ruminated on President Obama’s curious lack of personal connections with any global leaders of note. Peter Feaver’s post below on Iraq and this New York Times story both demonstrate how this deficiency continues to hinder the Obama administration’s foreign policy. The Times article describes Obama’s "failure to build close personal relationships with ...

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GettyImages
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GettyImages

Last summer I ruminated on President Obama’s curious lack of personal connections with any global leaders of note. Peter Feaver’s post below on Iraq and this New York Times story both demonstrate how this deficiency continues to hinder the Obama administration’s foreign policy. The Times article describes Obama’s "failure to build close personal relationships with foreign leaders that can, especially in the Middle East, help the White House to influence decisions made abroad."

Peter’s post and the Times article both point to diplomatic mistakes made with Maliki in Iraq and Mubarak in Egypt. Meanwhile, the list continues to grow of President Obama’s other missed opportunities, failures, and simmering crises that all could have benefitted from better personal relationships and rapports — such as with Karzai in Afghanistan, Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, Merkel in Germany, Harper in Canada, Noda in Japan (the Senkaku Islands standoff between Japan and China could get much worse), Singh in India, Zardari in Pakistan, and especially Netanyahu in Israel. Sure, some of these global leaders can be difficult to get along with, but diplomacy has never been easy.

The two cases of Obama’s positive relationships that have been reported were with Dmitri Medvedev, the erstwhile Russian president (and current but largely irrelevant Prime Minister), and Prime Minister Erdogan in Turkey. These are exceptions that prove the rule, and notably neither relationship seems to have produced significant policy results. Turkey’s democracy continues to erode while it pursues a hedging strategy in the region. The White House’s earlier effort to cultivate Medvedev was a failed bet on the wrong leader that damaged the U.S. posture with Russia, exemplified by Obama’s hot-mic supplications to the Russians for "flexibility."

It may well be that President Obama has cultivated strong personal relationships with some other world leaders that have not yet been publicly disclosed. But given this White House’s propensity to leak foreign policy information intended to cast the boss in a favorable light, the fact that a credulous media hasn’t run many stories on such friendships probably means they don’t exist. This lack of personal chemistry with foreign leaders seems of a piece with Obama’s lack of personal connections with American Congressional leaders, as described in unflattering detail by many sources such as Bob Woodward’s new book.

In my post last year I observed how previous leaders such as Secretary of State George Shultz and President Bush 43 cultivated personal relationships with their international counterparts, often doing so deliberately during times of calm, before crises struck. Other positive examples abound in the annals of American diplomacy, such President Clinton’s close rapport with Tony Blair, or President Bush 41’s deft statecraft with numerous leaders in ending the Cold War and successful efforts to line up multinational support for the Persian Gulf War. Or from the more distant past, my class this week read Mary Ann Glendon’s excellent book on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal warmth and persistent diplomacy brought together a wildly diverse and fractious group of international leaders behind a common human rights framework at the outset of the Cold War.

Personal relationships among leaders by themselves do not guarantee success. And for all of their advantages, they can also at times cloud good judgment, such as when Ronald Reagan’s personal loyalties to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl led to the infamous visit to the Bitburg cemetery.

Yet the advantages of cultivating close bonds are manifest, and the failure to do so can be costly. For the Obama administration, the strategic consequences of this deficiency have resulted in a largely reactive foreign policy. While it is impossible to anticipate and stay abreast of all events, this White House to a surprising degree still seems to be regularly caught off guard, and leaves much of the rest of the world wondering where it stands and where it wants to steer the ship of state going forward. Having a few more world leaders on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s direct dial would be a small but meaningful step in the right direction.

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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