Bush Combines Personal Diplomacy With Caution

President's tactics seen as successful, but critics cite inherent risks

GEORGE BUSH, as diplomat in chief, is a great believer in personal relationships - combining a high-risk type of statesmanship with his cautious temper. This week, Mr. Bush met with Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki in the White House on Wednesday. Tuesday, he called West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl by telephone to discuss German unity and to affirm the US position that the Polish border with Germany should remain inviolate.

Next month, he will meet British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Bermuda and French President Francois Mitterrand in south Florida.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State James Baker III is meeting Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in Namibia this week, then again in April and possibly May, in preparation for Bush's second summit meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in June.

Bush has held face-to-face meetings with at least eight heads of government from around the world so far this year - not counting relatively minor visits such as that of the president-elect of Costa Rica this week or the Honduran president last week.

In his first year in office, Bush met with Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Mitterrand each at least five times - among at least 130 meetings with heads of state or government, by a rough White House count.

He has also shown a ready inclination to pick up the telephone and call foreign leaders, including his erstwhile superpower rival, Mr. Gorbachev.

His vigorous pace of personal diplomacy is not out of the ordinary for a modern presidency, but overall Bush does far more of his diplomatic work personally than Ronald Reagan did.

A lot more diplomacy is carried out in the top three levels of the Bush administration than in the past decade, says one administration official, referring to the activity of the president, vice president, and secretary of state. "In the past, it was relegated more to levels three to six," the official adds.

The only clear agreement among outside observers is that this president handles more detailed diplomatic tasks and follow-through than did Mr. Reagan.

"I have the impression that Bush loves personal diplomacy," says Walter Roberts, a professor at George Washington University and a former career diplomat. "He's probably at his best at it. I have the feeling he wants to make his mark in foreign affairs."

Personal diplomacy has its risks.

Meeting with allies like Mitterrand and Thatcher, or Irish Prime Minister and European Council President Charles Haughey, serves the useful purpose of underscoring strong relationships and existing policies, says Charles Fairbanks of Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies.

But it is more common for summits to either be empty media events, perhaps creating the illusion of progress, or to "go off the rails" with agreements between the leaders that cannot survive closer review by policy staffs at home, says Mr. Fairbanks, who served in the State Department during the Reagan years.

"The very American notion that personal friendship, liking, or chemistry can fundamentally change historical interests and trends is very superficial," he says.

In Bush, Fairbanks sees the belief in personal chemistry between leaders that Reagan shared, but with a greater caution and more knowledgeable professionalism.

The chief example of a summit gone wrong is the Reagan-Gorbachev mini-summit in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986. Reagan surprised his staff by agreeing in principle to eliminate ballistic missiles entirely in a decade. The agreement did not hold. President Carter and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in the late 1970s also seemed to have very poor personal chemistry, notes Fairbanks, but it did not hurt US-German relations at all.

"There's a tendency to feel - it's felt by every president who does it - that the personal touch, the telephone call, can turn things around," notes Charles Schmitz, vice president of the Foreign Service Association. This is largely illusion, he says, unless it is accompanied by traditional diplomatic legwork.

Many of the State Department's foreign policy professionals have complained from very early in this administration at being frozen out of policy work by Mr. Baker and a top cadre of his fellow political appointees.

Yet Mr. Schmitz is not sure how different Baker is in this from past secretaries such as George Shultz or Henry Kissinger.

"And it's hard to argue with success," says Schmitz of Baker's conduct of foreign policy.

Before Bush took office, the US and Soviet leaders had met in 16 summit meetings since World War II. Five of them were between Reagan and Gorbachev during Reagan's second term.

Meetings between heads of state only became a major form of diplomacy under Franklin Roosevelt, notes diplomatic historian Elmer Plischke. The practice expanded under Richard Nixon, especially with his ground-breaking trips to Moscow and Beijing.

Bush has put his own stamp on presidential diplomacy. "I would say he is a happy and anxious summiteer," says Dr. Plischke. "He has so far preferred informality."

When Woodrow Wilson proposed going to Versailles in 1918, his political opponents questioned whether he could retain the constitutional power of the presidency while abroad. Now, a president has the technical ability to conduct virtually all the affairs of state from anywhere in the world, making personal diplomacy more practicable.

"Today, much more than 20 years ago, wherever the president, or the chancellor, or the prime minister is is the seat of government," Mr. Roberts says.

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