Extending a hand, Obama often finds a cold shoulder

He differs from his most recent predecessors, who made personal relationships with leaders.

Over porterhouse steak and cherry pie at a desert estate in California earlier this month, president Barack Obama delivered a stern lecture to president Xi Jinping about China’s disputes with its neighbours. If it is going to be a rising power, he scolded, it needs to behave like one.

The next morning, Xi punched back, accusing the United States of the same computer hacking tactics it attributed to China. It was, Obama acknowledged, “a very blunt conversation.”

Ten days later, in Northern Ireland, Obama had another tough meeting with a prickly leader, president Vladimir V Putin of Russia. At odds over the Syrian civil war, Obama tried to lighten the mood by joking about how age was depleting their athletic skills. Putin, a decade older and fending off questions at home about his health, took it as a jab. “The president just wants to get me to relax,” he said.

While tangling with the leaders of two Cold War antagonists of the United States is nothing new, the two bruising encounters in such a short span underscore a hard reality for Obama as he heads deeper into a second term that may come to be dominated by foreign policy: His main counterparts on the world stage are not his friends, and they make little attempt to cloak their disagreements in diplomatic niceties.

Even his friends are not always so friendly. On Wednesday, for example, the president  met in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who had invited him to deliver a speech at the Brandenburg Gate. But Merkel expectedly pressed Obama about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programmes, which offend privacy-minded Germans.

For all of his effort to cultivate personal ties with foreign counterparts over the last 4 1/2 years - the informal “shirt sleeves summit” with Xi was supposed to nurture a rapport that White House aides acknowledge did not materialise - Obama has complicated relationships with some, and has bet on others who came to disappoint him.

“In Europe, especially, Obama was welcomed with open arms, and some people had unrealistic expectations about him,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a longtime senior US diplomat. Noting that Obama continued some unpopular policies like the use of drones, he said, “People don’t appreciate that American interests continue from administration to administration.”

White House officials said Obama’s meetings with Xi and Putin were productive, regardless of the atmospherics. One of the president’s most problematic relationships, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, has improved since he visited Jerusalem in March, with their differences over Iran’s nuclear program narrowing. Still, for a naturally reserved president who has assiduously cultivated a handful of leaders, it has been a dispiriting stretch.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whom Obama views as a new kind of Muslim leader, has used tear gas and water cannons against protesters in Istanbul. Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader whom Obama telephoned repeatedly after he became president of Egypt, suspended the constitution and granted himself unlimited powers, though he also cut off ties with Syria.

Obama spent four years befriending Putin’s predecessor, Dmitry A Medvedev, hoping to build him up as a counterweight to Putin. That never happened, and Obama now finds himself back at square one with a Russian leader who appears less likely than ever to find common ground with the US on issues like Syria.

Yielded benefits

Administration officials argue that their bet on Medvedev made sense at the time and yielded benefits, not just in a arms treaty but also in Russian support for sanctions against Iran, acquiescence to the Nato operation in Libya and agreement to allow US troops to travel through Russian airspace to Afghanistan.

While White House officials worry about Morsi’s authoritarian tendencies, they note that he was helpful in brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Erdogan’s troubles, they said, do not obscure the fact that at Obama’s behest, he and Netanyahu agreed to mend the frayed ties between Turkey and Israel.

As for Xi, officials said, the body language matters less than the fact that he and Obama were able to discuss the most difficult issues between China and the US. On one - how to deal with a nuclear North Korea - they appeared to make progress.

“You don’t need to be buddies with someone to establish an effective relationship,” said Burns, who now teaches at Harvard. “Not everyone can be Roosevelt and Churchill forming a personal bond to end the Second World War.”

Even with friends, however, there is tension. President François Hollande of France was initially thrilled with Obama because he saw him as an ally against Merkel on economic issues.

But by the time they met at the G-8 Summit in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, the relationship had soured, according to French analysts, because France is frustrated that the US did not do more to help with the war in Mali and resisted a more robust response to Syria.

Obama differs from his most recent predecessors, who made personal relationships with leaders the cornerstone of their foreign policies. The first George Bush moved gracefully in foreign capitals, while Bill Clinton and George W. Bush related to fellow leaders as politicians, trying to understand their pressures and constituencies.

“That’s not President Obama’s style,” said James B. Steinberg, Clinton’s deputy national security adviser and Obama’s deputy secretary of state.

Such relationships matter, Steinberg said, but they are not the driving force behind a leader’s decision making. “They do what they believe is in the interest of their country and they’re not going to do it differently just because they have a good relationship with another leader,” he said.

For Obama, no relationship is more prickly, and yet more significant, than that with Putin. Clinton and Bush forged strong partnerships with their Russian counterparts, Boris Yeltsin and Putin respectively. But even that did not prevent ruptures over NATO military action in Kosovo and the Russian war in Georgia.

Obama arrived in office determined to invest in Medvedev, but he underestimated Putin’s continuing power. Their first meeting was marked by a nearly hourlong lecture by Putin about all the ways the US had offended Moscow. At their second, Putin kept Obama waiting 30 minutes before a frosty encounter.

“Obama doesn’t really take kindly to being harangued so we knew from the beginning that he and Putin weren’t going to have a good basis together,” said Fiona Hill, a former top US analyst about Russia and co-author of a book on Putin.

However strained their joint appearance on Monday, Obama did not criticize Putin over human rights or the rule of law. While the White House is frustrated by Russia’s refusal to abandon the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, Obama has been reluctant to intervene more forcefully on behalf of the rebels.

As Hill noted, even Bush’s friendship did not stop Putin from crossing him. “With Obama,” she said, “there’s no pretense of personal chemistry and the results may be the same.”

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