For Obama, no buddies abroad
Other U.S. presidents have bonded with foreign leaders, but Obama so far has no such ties. Does that matter?
(Page 2 of 2)
"There is a stylistic difference from George W. Bush that is notable," says Stephen Hess, an expert on the US presidency at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Obama turns out to be much more cool, in McLuhanesque terms of cool and hot," he adds, referring to the Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The question is, does it matter? Mr. Hess is inclined to play down the importance of what he surmises may be a media fixation, saying leaders in the end act on behalf of their own countries. "Each head of state is ultimately and overwhelmingly operating based on interests" – his own and his country's, he says.
Hess, who served in the Eisenhower White House, recalls that President Eisenhower had "a deep affection" for British Prime Minister Anthony Eden. "But when it came to the Suez crisis [of 1956], he had to cut [Eden] down at the knees. Friendship or no," Hess adds, "he did what he had to do."
But others say leader-to-leader friendships can provide important moral support, a valuable sounding board outside the White House cocoon – and have bucked up more than one president in a moment of crisis.
Thatcher stiffened Bush's backbone
"When Margaret Thatcher told the first President Bush, 'Now don't go wobbly on me George,' it might have stiffened his backbone a little precisely because it was a friend saying it," says Hoover's Mr. Henricksen, referring to a remark the British prime minister famously made to Bush in the run-up to the Gulf War.
Henricksen also notes that French President Sarkozy, who has tried in more ways than last year's spurned dinner invitation to cultivate a close relationship with Obama, has refused to send additional troops to Afghanistan despite the American president's request.
"Who knows if Sarkozy would have made the same decision if he hadn't suffered some of these slights on the part of Obama," he says. "What it comes down to is that relationships do matter."
Some foreign-policy experts see something even deeper in Obama's aloofness toward European leaders in particular.
Is Obama interested in Europe?
"There's a general concern among European leaders that America under Obama is not interested in Europe," says Reginald Dale, a senior fellow in the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "More striking still is a dawning perception that Obama is the first [postwar] American president not to take on the role of leader of the West," Mr. Dale says. "He's just president of the United States."
But those deeper concerns start with what might seem to be the mundane, Dale says – the lack of a rapport with any Western leaders, a White House "regret" that attending a US-Europe summit later this spring will not be possible, Obama's focus on Asia and his declaration in Tokyo last year that he sees himself as America's "first Pacific president."
Dale says he still has ringing in his ear the words of a senior European diplomat, who recently told him, "[Obama] talks to his enemies. Why can't he talk to his friends?"
Those words struck Dale as a cry of concern rooted in Obama's neglect of America's core allies. "Obama is demonstrating a different vision of the world by paying significantly more attention to China, Russia, and also India and Brazil," he says. "Even in a multipolar world you'd think it would make more sense to have a community of Western allies defending their own interests," he adds, "but you're not going to do that by snubbing your old friends."