Obama shifts focus from foreign populations to leaders

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010; A01

President Obama traveled halfway around the world last weekend to lecture his mercurial Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, about the need to fight corruption in his government.

It was a brief, unhappy encounter in which Obama conveyed concerns that corruption is undermining Karzai's government at the very time that the United States is attempting to strengthen it. But the meeting revealed a shift in Obama's foreign policy: a growing emphasis on one-on-one encounters with foreign leaders.

For many world leaders, supporting Obama has been less a personal decision than one based on domestic politics. The president broke with the personality-based foreign policy of George W. Bush in favor of a more populist diplomacy, which seeks to leverage his appeal in other nations to further the national interests he is pursuing with their leaders. His conservative critics have said he has no friends abroad to turn to for help in promoting American interests overseas.

But after 14 months in office, Obama is turning his attention from the global audience to heads of state, hoping to develop a rapport that will help him reap the benefits of his effort to repair America's image abroad. The shift is a recognition that he must appeal more directly and frequently to the people who set policy, as well as to their constituents.

"Presidents are politicians, after all, and politics is based on the ability to forge personal relationships," said former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is now president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The change from a year ago is stark. In his widely broadcast address in Cairo last June, Obama called Israeli settlements in the occupied territories "illegitimate." By contrast, he met last week at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for two hours, urging him privately to freeze Jewish settlement construction.

A year ago, Obama was in France, where he held one of his first foreign town hall forums, before hundreds of exuberant citizens. On Tuesday night, he and first lady Michelle Obama will have a private dinner for French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni -- the first such dinner with a visiting head of state of his presidency.

And in April 2009, Obama called for a world free of nuclear weapons before thousands of cheering Czechs gathered in a Prague square. Next month, he will host more than 40 heads of state in Washington for a meeting on securing nuclear materials. It will be the first time, White House officials say, that a U.S. president has held a single-issue summit with so many foreign leaders.

Bush put enormous stock in personal chemistry and cultivated a jocular informality with many world leaders, once calling out to then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair at an international forum by just his last name.

He rode horses with fellow cowboy-boot-clad President Vicente Fox of Mexico and, as a farewell gift, he gave the Elvis-loving Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi a personal tour of Graceland. Most famously, Bush said after his first meeting with then-Russian President Vladimir Putin that he was "able to get a sense of his soul," a statement that haunted him as Putin grew increasingly authoritarian.

But Bush's policies, rooted in his "global war on terrorism," proved highly unpopular in much of the world. He left office with few friends among the leaders he had reached out to for years.

"Obama is not the sort of guy who looks for a best buddy, and that's very different than Bush," said a European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about perceptions of U.S. leaders abroad. "Sometimes being too personal is not a good thing. You can make mistakes."

Obama, who was an Illinois state senator just four years before he was elected president, knew few world leaders upon taking office. Since then, he has developed mostly arm's-length relationships with fellow heads of state, including many from developing countries that previous presidents largely ignored or shunned to protect U.S. relationships with more traditional allies.

Ever since 200,000 Germans turned out for the speech he made in Berlin during the presidential campaign in July 2008, Obama has made sure that his visits to other nations include direct encounters with the people there, especially ones that view U.S. motives suspiciously.

He held a "student roundtable" in Istanbul as part of his early outreach to the Islamic world. He talked about freedom of speech and the Internet during a Q&A session with university students in Shanghai. And he addressed the "drift" in European-U.S. relations during a town hall forum in Strasbourg, France.

"I wouldn't say this was a way of going around leaders, but it had gotten to the point where it was hard for leaders to cooperate with the United States, given our standing," said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "Every poll you look at shows a marked uptick in support for American leadership around the world. It is far easier for leaders to cooperate with us if their people want them to."

Republican critics say the approach has unsettled the United States' best friends, and failed more than succeeded in promoting American interests on some of the most far-reaching foreign policy challenges of the day.

Obama's direct appeal to the people of China and Iran, for example, has produced little change in the attitude of their governments, showing the limits of a bottom-up approach when it comes to dealing with authoritarian countries. Middle East peace talks remain moribund after the administration's so-far-unsuccessful attempts to end Israeli settlement construction or to persuade Arab governments to make even token diplomatic gestures toward the Jewish state.

"Because he didn't know anyone until recently, Obama relies on something else: his popularity," said Simon Serfaty, a political scientist who holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski chair in global security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"His relationship is not with the president of France, for example, but with the French people," he said. "How Sarkozy thinks is that if he likes Obama, he'll be a little more popular himself."

But Serfaty warned that Obama "can't always translate popularity into an acceptance of his policies."

"He is beginning to face a crisis of efficacy," he said. "With Bush it was a crisis of legitimacy -- the legitimacy of American power. Obama is facing questions of, 'Sure people like us, but have you gotten anything done?' "

White House officials say that, in several key relationships, Obama has worked successfully with leaders by appealing primarily to their common security and economic interests.

That is true for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a fellow lawyer just four years Obama's junior. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the percentage of Russians who expressed confidence in the U.S. president jumped 15 percentage points from Bush's last year through Obama's first. The two leaders concluded months of difficult negotiations over a new strategic arms-reduction treaty with a phone call last week.

With Afghanistan at war, Obama has been unable to appeal directly to its people. That has made it difficult for him to use public opinion to influence Karzai. But making the Karzai meeting the centerpiece of his trip -- bringing along much of his senior staff and visiting with U.S. troops only afterward -- shows the importance Obama is placing on a relationship that he has been criticized for neglecting. He invited Karzai to come to Washington in May.

White House officials say Obama, viewed at times as cool and aloof, does have relationships with several leaders that go beyond their foreign policy agendas.

Over lunch in Seoul last year with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Obama veered from their trade and security agenda to discuss domestic issues that interest them both, including how to improve public education.

He privately praised the poverty-reduction ideas of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after their first meeting at last year's Group of 20 summit, White House officials said. Singh later received the first state dinner of Obama's presidency, and Obama plans to travel to India later this year. President Felipe Calderón of Mexico will receive the second state dinner, in May.

The developing world outreach paid off, Rhodes said, during the December climate change conference in Copenhagen.

Obama won the support of Singh, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for an agreement he forged with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The deal, widely criticized by environmentalists and some European leaders as a watered-down compromise, would have failed without their backing.

White House officials note that Obama has traveled to Europe several times since taking office. He also recently established a regular videoconference with Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

During Obama's second presidential trip to France, last June, Sarkozy asked during a joint news conference, "What does friendship mean?" He listed help in closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; playing a more active role in NATO; and confronting Iran's nuclear program. Sarkozy has accepted two Guantanamo Bay prisoners, rejoined NATO's military command, and pledged to keep French troops in Afghanistan for as long as necessary.

"Do you think people are just waiting to see us hand in hand sitting here looking into one another's eyes?" he said at the news conference. "Of course not."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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