By Jackson Diehl
Monday, March 8, 2010; A13
I recently asked several senior administration officials, separately, to name a foreign leader with whom Barack Obama has forged a strong personal relationship during his first year in office. A lot of hemming and hawing ensued.
One official mentioned French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is scheduled to bring his glamorous wife to the White House residence this month for a couples dinner with Barack and Michelle Obama. But in France, Sarkozy's bitterness toward Obama, the product of several perceived snubs, is an open secret, reported widely in the French press. In a speech at the U.N. General Assembly in September Sarkozy appeared to mock Obama's signature disarmament initiative, saying "we are living in a real world, not a virtual world."
Angela Merkel's name also came up: Obama and the German chancellor, I was told, share a down-to-business pragmatism. But Merkel, too, has been conspicuously cool toward Obama ever since he made Berlin a stop on his 2008 election campaign. She stopped him then from appearing at the Brandenburg Gate and was said to be miffed last November when Obama didn't show for ceremonies celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Anyway, diplomats say that Merkel has a much warmer relationship with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
No one named Gordon Brown. That's fairly remarkable: The relationship between the sitting British prime minister and U.S. president has been consistently close over the past 30 years. Think Reagan and Thatcher, Clinton and Blair, Bush and Blair. But Obama has been portrayed as dissing Brown ever since he presented him with a set of DVDs as a gift during their first meeting in Washington a year ago. Last fall the British press reported that the White House had turned down five requests for Obama to meet Brown one-on-one at the United Nations or the G-20 summit.
Finally, I was offered a name I didn't expect: Dmitry Medvedev. Obama, I was assured, has built a solid relationship with the Russian president during their several bilateral meetings, which have focused in part on a new nuclear arms control agreement that both could count as a distinctive achievement. But the deal hasn't been clinched -- maybe because Vladimir Putin, whom Obama has held at arm's length, doesn't like it. And could it really be that an American president has found his closest foreign partner in the Kremlin?
The paradox here is that Obama remains hugely popular abroad -- from Germany and France to countries where anti-Americanism has recently been a problem, such as Turkey and Indonesia. His following means that, in democratic countries at least, leaders have a strong incentive to befriend him. And yet this president appears, so far, to have no genuine foreign friends. In this he is the opposite of George W. Bush, who was reviled among the foreign masses but who forged close ties with a host of leaders -- Aznar of Spain, Uribe of Colombia, Sharon and Olmert of Israel, Koizumi of Japan.
Jealousy or political rivalry may play a part -- Sarkozy is one of several Europeans who have wanted to assume the role of Obama's closest ally and reacted poorly when he didn't respond. But another big cause seems to be lack of interest on Obama's part. Focused intently on his domestic agenda, the president is said to be reluctant to take time to build relationships with foreign leaders. If something has needed to be done or decided, he has readily picked up the phone. If not, he generally hasn't been available.
Obama also hasn't hesitated to publicly express displeasure with U.S. allies. He sparred all last year with Israel's Binyamin Netanyahu; he expressed impatience when Japan's Yukio Hatoyama balked at implementing a military base agreement. He has repeatedly criticized Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, and he gave up the videoconferences Bush used to have with Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki.
An argument can be made that none of this matters. Bush, after all, was often criticized for depending too heavily on personal relationships -- remember how he looked into Putin's soul? -- and his pals didn't save his administration from being universally condemned as "unilateralist." The Obama administration, in contrast, can argue that it has done pretty well in lining up European support on key matters such as Afghanistan and Iran. And Obama's personal popularity continues to provide leverage with leaders around the world, whether they hit it off with him or not.
Still, it's worth wondering: Would Sarkozy have fought French public opinion and sent more troops to Afghanistan (he has refused) if he had been cultivated more by Obama? Would Israel's Netanyahu be willing to take more risks in the (moribund) Middle East peace process if he believed he could count on this U.S. president? Would Karzai cooperate more closely with U.S. commanders in the field if Obama had embraced him?
The answers seem obvious. In foreign as well as domestic affairs, coolness has its cost.