The dilemmas of cold fish diplomacy

In the New York Times, Mark Landler and Peter Baker review Barack Obama's personal diplomacy with other world leaders, and find it wanting.  They make a pretty interesting case: 

While tangling with the leaders of two cold war antagonists of the United States is nothing new, the two bruising encounters in such a short span underscore a hard reality for Mr. Obama as he heads deeper into a second term that may come to be dominated by foreign policy: his main counterparts on the world stage are not his friends, and they make little attempt to cloak their disagreements in diplomatic niceties.

Even his friends are not always so friendly. On Wednesday, for example, the president is to meet in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who has invited him to deliver a speech at the Brandenburg Gate. But Ms. Merkel is also expected to press Mr. Obama about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, which offend privacy-minded Germans.

For all of his effort to cultivate personal ties with foreign counterparts over the last four and a half years — the informal “shirt-sleeves summit” with Mr. Xi was supposed to nurture a friendly rapport that White House aides acknowledge did not materialize — Mr. Obama has complicated relationships with some, and has bet on others who came to disappoint him....

Mr. Obama differs from his most recent predecessors, who made personal relationships with leaders the cornerstone of their foreign policies. The first George Bush moved gracefully in foreign capitals, while Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush related to fellow leaders as politicians, trying to understand their pressures and constituencies.

“That’s not President Obama’s style,” said James B. Steinberg, Mr. Clinton’s deputy national security adviser and Mr. Obama’s deputy secretary of state.

Such relationships matter, Mr. Steinberg said, but they are not the driving force behind a leader’s decision making. “They do what they believe is in the interest of their country and they’re not going to do it differently just because they have a good relationship with another leader,” he said.

It is to Landler and Baker's credit that they provide the appropriate context to this phenomenon in their story.  Personal relationships -- especially with rival great powers -- don't count for a hell of a lot. As they note, "Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush forged strong partnerships with their Russian counterparts, Boris Yeltsin and Mr. Putin, respectively. But even that did not prevent ruptures over NATO military action in Kosovo and the Russian war in Georgia."  So even if the Obama administration did not go the extra mile in wooing the leader of China, for example, it likely wouldn't have mattered much. 

So can we leave it at the "nations have 'only permanent interests'" conclusion?  I fear neither life nor world politics is that simple.  My concern reading Baker and Landler's story isn't about the lack of warmth between Obama and great power rivals, but rather the lack of warmth between Obama and U.S. allies.  The story notes that relations with French president Francoise Hollande are strained for a number of reasons.  Obama has made committed numerous small faux-pas with his British counterparts as well.  Landler and Baker fail to identify any personal relationship between Obama and an allied leader that is particularly warm (though Chuck Todd suggests Angela Merkel).  The only "warm personal relationship" the press has identified between Obama and a current world leader is Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  Unfortunately, as Indian foreign policy analysts like to stress, the United States is not their ally and New Delhi is not ready for prime time on the global diplomatic stage anyway. 

It would seem that Obama has a deficit of close personal allies and confidantes at G-20 meetings or other confabs.  Which isn't exactly a big deal but seems a bit problematic.  Sometimes advice from staffers, underlings, or even cabinet members can be dismissed in a way that advice from a nominal peer cannot.  All leaders -- especially powerful ones -- are served well by a coterie of allies who can speak truth to power. 

That's how things should work in theory to correct misperceptions and the like.  In practice, of course, it's worth remembering that Tony Blair was both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush's closest friend on the global stage.  Those friendships produced... mixed results.  So maybe, in the end, this is a big bunch of nothing. 

What do you think? 

Daniel W. Drezner

What to expect when your enduring rivals signal something other than what you're expecting

So it seems like the remaining Axis of Evil states are sending signals that maybe they want out of the international relations penalty box.

First, in Iran's presidential election, the most moderate candidate, former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani, won a surprise first-round victory on the strength of no real reformist being allowed to run a combination of Green Movement and mainstream public support. Thomas Erdbrink analyzes the new president for the New York Times:

During the recent election, Mr. Rowhani argued that it was again time to change tactics in the nuclear program and reduce international pressure on Iran.

The nuclear case, he wrote in his book, has turned into the most complicated negotiations Iran has ever held.

“It is good for centrifuges to operate,” he said in a campaign video, “but it is also important that the country operates as well, and that the wheels of industry are turning.”

On Sunday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters that there would be no change in nuclear policy. But reformists led by former President Mohammad Khatami, who backed Mr. Rowhani in the election, say it is time for a new approach.

“The election result shows that people want a change in the nuclear policy,” Mr. Shakouri-Rad said. “Now we will wait and see what Mr. Rowhani will do.”

Meanwhile, over in the Pacific Rim, the North Korean government has proffered a new proposal, according to the Financial Times' Song Jung-a:

North Korea has proposed unconditional high-level talks with the US to discuss denuclearisation and easing tensions, less than a week after it called off negotiations with South Korea over economic co-operation projects.

“If the US truly wants to realise a ‘world without nuclear weapons’ and bring detente, it should positively respond to the DPRK’s bold decision and good intention, not missing the opportunity,” the statement said, carried by the country’s official KCNA news agency.

The statement also said Pyongyang wants to discuss replacing the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean war with a permanent peace treaty, as the two Koreas will mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean war in coming days.

The rare proposal of talks comes as Washington shows little appetite to engage Pyongyang directly since the breakdown of a food-for-disarmament agreement in February last year. Under the deal, Pyongyang agreed to suspend work on nuclear weapons in exchange for food aid, only to fire a long-range rocket weeks later.

So, does this mean I need to stop automating my Iran blog posts or that there will be something interesting to blog about on the Korean Peninsula?


The North Korean initiative is easier to dismiss. As the FT story notes, the U.S. reaction to this has been very cool. And it's worth noting that last week's DPRK effort to restart a dialogue with South Korea blew up because they couldn't agree on the appropriate rank of officials to meet.

What is interesting about the DPRK's latest efforts at diplomacy is the sense that Kim Jong Un has played himself into a rather tight corner. One of the takeaways from last week's Obama-Xi summit is that China and the United States are moving in the same direction on North Korea. South Korea's new president is about to have her own summit with Xi. So I suspect this is Pyongyang's way of trying to find a way out of the box. Hopefully, North Korea's leadership will eventually realize the only way that will actually happen is to be willing to negotiate over its nuclear program.

The Iran developments are more interesting, and as David Sanger notes, it seems like the Obama administration will be willing to test Rowhani's intentions and ability to control the negotiation process:

[W]hile the election of the new president, Hassan Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator who is considered a moderate compared with the other candidates, was greeted by some administration officials as the best of all likely outcomes, they said it did not change the fact that only the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would make the final decision about any concessions to the West.

Even so, they said they wanted to test Mr. Rowhani quickly, noting that although he argued for a moderate tone in dealing with the United States and its allies when he was a negotiator, he also boasted in 2006 that Iran had used a previous suspension of nuclear enrichment to make major strides in building its nuclear infrastructure (emphasis added).

It's really the bolded section that matters, however, with respect to the nuclear negotiations.

And that's the thing about negotiating with countries that clearly define each other as an adversary. The lack of trust makes it ridiculously easy to paint even the hint of a concession as the result of external pressure working -- which means that external pressure should be redoubled. Which means no breakthrough in negotiating a solution.

Of course, with both countries, from the U.S. perspective, it is entirely possible that there is no negotiated solution. Both Iran's and North Korea's behavior to date suggests that they will never really relinquish their nuclear programs, no matter what the United States offers.

What will be interesting going forward is whether Rowhani is skilled enough and powerful enough to project an Iranian government that doesn't seem, you know, bats**t insane. That might make it easier for the United States to decide that the focus of its economic and diplomatic statecraft toward Tehran is cutting a deal with the current regime rather than trying to subvert it.

But still, we're a long way off from me having to stop automating my Iran blog posts.