Barack Obama is well known for big speeches, not small talk. But in recent weeks, the president has turned on the charm with world leaders, trying to create warm personal ties for the cold purposes of furthering American interests.
The latest example was his cozy hosting of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to the White House. Only a few months ago, the two men were stern and steely toward each other, a result of policy differences and what appeared to be an Israeli slap at Vice President Joe Biden in March. But during a recent White House visit, Mr. Netanyahu was showered with praise. Mr. Obama referred to their “excellent one-on-one.”
Perhaps the president now believes that a bit of honey in his communications with Israeli leaders – as well as with many other foreign officials – will achieve more than the vinegar of criticism.
Obama’s same glad-hand approach was on display last month with Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev. The two lawyerly leaders, who have already met often, went out for burgers at an American diner, chatting it up like two regular guys. No doubt their newfound trust in each other helped quickly resolve the touchy issue of Russian spies being caught in the United States. The later swap of spies-for-spies on a Vienna airport tarmac did, in fact, go rather smoothly.
Obama has also tried to bridge a big communication gap with China’s leader, Hu Jintao – not an easy task for any foreign leader. At the recent Group of 20 meeting in Canada, the two men worked on their relationship as much as they did on issues. The result? An invitation for a state visit to the White House – a sign of closer ties and only the third state visit hosted by Obama.
At that same summit of the world’s biggest economies, Obama also showed off his new charm offensive by spending plenty of one-on-one time with the leaders of four other Asian nations: India, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea. And unlike his frosty ties with Britain’s previous prime minister, Gordon Brown of the Labour party, Obama showed a chumminess with the new Conservative leader, David Cameron, saying the two of them now have “a strong working relationship.”
Perhaps after 18 months in office and meeting so many top leaders, Obama is more confident in expressing himself in more personal ways with dictators and democrats alike rather than relying mostly on the power of ideas and professorial persuasion.
He came into office promising diplomatic engagement with American adversaries. It was an approach that helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize, even if he referred to his own achievements toward that end as “slight.” Indeed, his out-stretched hand to Iran and North Korea has been roundly rebuffed. Just the same, the fact that he attempted to warm up ties with them has only helped create more international support for tougher measures against them.
In May, the president’s National Security Strategy cited his hope for a soft-sell tactic in diplomacy. The document states that the US must “create opportunities to resolve differences, strengthen the international community’s support for our actions, learn about the intentions and nature of closed regimes, and plainly demonstrate to the publics within those nations that their governments are to blame for their isolation.”
Obama’s biggest experience in private life before becoming a politician was as a Chicago community organizer, where he learned the potential for relying on niceness in relationships. Sometimes that niceness, of course, can go overboard, such as the time Obama appeared to bow to the Saudi king. But at least he’s discovered that public quarrels with world leaders can often backfire, as the one with Netanyahu did.
An American president must not only carry a big stick and walk softly; he must sometimes talk nicely, too, winning over people with honey more than with vinegar.