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Policy Differences Trump Personal Ties

This New York Times article reviews Obama’s relationships with a number of world leaders, and unsurprisingly finds that disagreements on policy have created tensions with several of them. For instance, this is how it describes Obama’s relationship with French President Hollande:

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

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

In other words, there are tensions in the relationship with Hollande because Obama hasn’t agreed to do everything that Hollande wanted in foreign conflicts where U.S. interests are minimal to non-existent. All right, that’s worth knowing, but would that be significantly different if Obama had a closer personal relationship with Hollande? This keeps cropping up throughout the article: a foreign leader expects a certain kind of U.S. behavior, but doesn’t get everything he expects, and is therefore unhappy. In other cases, it is the foreign leader that doesn’t always meet Obama’s expectations. So policy differences usually trump personal ties between leaders in determining the state of bilateral relationships between states, which is what we would expect.

The article mentions the successful cultivation of a personal relationship with Medvedev that yielded some positive results, but then seems to treat this as irrelevant to its theme because Obama and Putin still don’t agree on some major issues. This section was odd:

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

In other words, U.S.-Russian relations were not that good under Clinton despite his chumminess with Yeltsin because of a war that the U.S. and NATO waged against a country in Russia’s orbit, and the relationship was in horrible shape by the end of Bush’s second term because the U.S. was pushing for NATO expansion into Georgia that Moscow would never tolerate. Whatever “strong partnership” Bush had created with Putin early in his first term had been wrecked by 2007-08 because of sharp disagreements over the Iraq war, NATO expansion, missile defense, and the so-called “freedom agenda.” Indeed, his bad experience with Bush is one of the reasons for Putin’s lingering distrust of U.S. foreign policy initiatives. There is probably no better example of how unimportant the relationship between two foreign leaders can be than that of the one between Bush and Putin.

The recurring complaint about Obama’s lack of close personal ties with world leaders is the foreign policy equivalent of the frequent claim that Obama doesn’t do enough “schmoozing” with members of Congress, as if this were the main thing that accounted for a lack of progress on major pieces of legislation.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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