This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
President Barack Obama vowed to show a different face to the world than George W. Bush — and it turns out to be a far less chummy one when it comes to personal diplomacy. Obama’s demeanor on the international stage may be more appealing to Europeans and others irritated by Bush’s cowboy persona, but in terms of the one-onone relationship building that can be a potent diplomatic lever for any president, the Democrat is practically an introvert compared with his world-class schmoozing predecessor. That’s what made Obama’s dinner on Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at an upscale Georgetown restaurant stand out. More than two years into his term, Obama cuts the image of an all-business envoy, seldom going outside normal business hours to turn on the charm with other heads of state. He appears to have built few deep personal bonds with foreign leaders, and his forays into public diplomacy — a burger run last year with Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev and a game of Ping-Pong last month with Britain’s David Cameron — are notable for their rarity. Bush, by contrast, bonded with Britain’s Tony Blair at Camp David, took Japan’s Junichiro Koizumi on a tour of Graceland, strolled hand-in-hand with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah at the president’s Texas ranch, looked into the eyes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin during another ranch summit to “get a sense of his soul,” and visited the family hacienda of Mexico’s Vicente Fox to pay respects to his mother. “Bush had more of a puppy dog feel to him, and Obama is more like a cat,” said Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Obama rarely takes his meetings with members of the world leaders club into the casual settings favored by so many of his predecessors. George H.W. Bush strolled the beaches of Kennebunkport with heads of state. Bill Clinton made a habit of escaping the White House bubble with foreign leaders,
playing saxophone in Prague, Czech Republic, dining on filet mignon in Pittsburgh and gorging on pasta in Georgetown. Obama has yet to invite any foreign leaders — or domestic, for that matter — to Camp David. When he breaks bread with visitors, Obama almost always does so on White House grounds, usually during a “working lunch” or at one of four state dinners, including the one for Merkel on Tuesday. The Georgetown dinner with Merkel was just the second time the president dined out with another world leader. First lady Michelle Obama sometimes joins the president for large group meals, but the couple rarely share an intimate double date with a foreign leader and spouse. The Medvedevs and Sarkozys of France received the only date-night invites of the Obama presidency. “What is so paradoxical is he is multilateralist. His entire conception of diplomacy is the anti-Lone Ranger,” said Aaron David Miller, a Mideast expert with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former adviser to six secretaries of state. “And he is hard-pressed to develop these types of alliances and close personal ties.” Personal relationships can’t grease every tough decision. National interests often trump the bond forged over a plate of pasta or a weekend getaway. Just ask George W. Bush. When it came time to win support for the Iraq war resolution at the United Nations in 2003, several of the allies he wooed — including Russia and Mexico — opposed him. And unlike Clinton, for example, who found an ideological soul mate in Blair, Obama hasn’t discovered a similar match among his foreign counterparts. Obama’s cool pose on the world stage mirrors his arms-length approach toward leaders at home. He’s just not that into hanging out with Congress, business executives or anybody else in Washington who isn’t part of his family or close-knit circle of friends. And he’s always had little patience for the demands on American politicians to play to the cameras. But the White House disputes suggestions that Obama lacks close relationships abroad. Although he may not be as overtly schmoozy as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, Obama still puts in an effort, aides said.
A lot of work gets done in a simple private conversation, and the Oval Office is the best place to do that, said Tommy Vietor, the White House spokesman for the National Security Council. “There’s both work and social elements to a state visit,” Vietor said. “They spend the whole day, if not a couple of days together, having one-on-one conversations, larger delegation meetings — and of course, the [state] dinner itself.” Asked about Obama’s friends abroad, administration officials point first to Medvedev, a fellow lawyer and technology geek who spent hours with Obama negotiating the new START agreement, which required repeated interventions by the two leaders. White House aides said the relationship paid off during the debate over a United Nations resolution to authorize the use of force in Libya. Russia didn’t support it, but the country also didn’t veto it. Yet, after a meeting last month at the G-8 economic summit in Deauville, France, Medvedev and Obama appeared cool toward each other — a characterization from reporters in the room that the administration later disputed. Obama talks more often with Cameron than any other world leader — about two dozen times since the prime minister took office in May 2010, including twice to talk about the birth of Cameron’s daughter, according to a POLITICO review of White House public statements and releases. There’s Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — an unlikely ally whom the administration highlighted, saying they “seem to respect and admire one another.” Obama has spoken or met with Erdogan about 15 times, more often than with Sarkozy or Merkel, at least according to official White House releases, which do not cover every contact between the president and foreign leaders. The Turkish and U.S. governments have clashed during the past two years over Israel, Iran and unflattering WikiLeaks cables, but the relationship between Erdogan and Obama has helped them weather those bumps, an administration official said. The perception from the outside, however, is much different. “It is probably a thornier relationship than it has been in decades,” said John Sitilides, chairman of the Southeast Europe Project board of advisers at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Another leader high on the president’s call list is Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who has spoken to or met with Obama more than a dozen times, including three times to talk about the king’s surgery. Obama’s relationship with Merkel has been much scrutinized, given the leaders’ differences on Libya, economic policy and nuclear energy. “Obama and Merkel have not established a close personal bond, but that’s not the only problem,” wrote Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper in a lengthy piece before Merkel’s visit Tuesday. “When it comes to important issues, Germany and the United States have never stood further apart during Merkel’s two terms as chancellor as they are at the moment.” But in their public appearances, they were all warmth. She called him “Dear Barack.” He described her as “one of my closest global partners.” For the state dinner, musician James Taylor sang “You’ve Got a Friend,” at the request of the White House. Still, Obama could try harder, some analysts said. “I find it an anomaly in Obama’s personality,” Miller said. “He is not wooden; he has tremendous intelligence and emotional intelligence. But the connector in chief, he is not.” This article was originally published on Politico. By Carrie Budoff Brown
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.