The president and members of Congress should all travel more, not less. Relatively speaking, the cost of the president’s travel is insignificant, and the criticism President Obama is currently facing for the cost of his upcoming trip to Africa is groundless. The amount of goodwill an American president can generate by visiting foreign capitals is incalculable. I saw this when I traveled on dozens of overseas trip with President Reagan and Bush 41.
Diplomacy starts at the top, so the president should lead by example. But we are not reaping all the benefits of diplomacy and engagement that we should — not because we don’t spend enough, but because of a lack of understanding and patience with other societies and leaders on a personal level.
The United States is powerful, but we are not nimble. We also don’t do gestures very well. Other societies are conscious of symbolic gestures and small, intimate courtesies that communicate mutual respect and even admiration. If the president can illustrate to our friends and potential allies that America respects and understands them at a personal level, it can go a long way toward building mutual respect. And more than that, in many societies, it can actually be viewed almost as a debt that someday should be repaid to the president.
Too much of the president’s travel fits a pattern that is predictable and is diplomatically antiseptic. Leaders often come away from a encounter with the U.S. president without a fresh approach or personal enthusiasm for supporting American interests. Some feel like they were patted on the head and virtually lost in the crowd. Most world leaders respect American power and the greatness of the American presidency, so when the president travels abroad he should use this influence to please those he is visiting and bestow some of his aura upon others.