Byline: Jamie Dettmer, INSIGHT
EUROPE - President George W. Bush summed up his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the end of their summit in late September as "a good fellow to spend quality time with." It was vintage Bush always ready to personalize meetings with foreign leaders.
Not that he has been the only president to stress the personal his predecessor, Bill Clinton, tended to highlight his private rapport with foreign counterparts and to see personal chemistry between leaders as an important ingredient of diplomacy.
But how far does personal friendship between leaders go when it comes to international relations? Is it a crucial element in negotiations and shaping agreements? Bush's personality-driven, foreign-policy approach has proved successful in many ways, according to diplomats, but there are limitations to it and the danger that sometimes too much is invested in a personal relationship that can't produce desired results.
Even so, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher certainly showed that a strong friendship between leaders can be translated into effective cooperation. The extraordinary friendship between the two reinvigorated the flagging Anglo-American "special relationship" with far-reaching consequences. As far as Reagan was concerned their strong tie was evidence of divine intervention, according to a letter he wrote to Thatcher in 1994, days after she delivered a speech in Washington at a formal 83rd birthday tribute for the retired U.S. president.
"Throughout my life, I've always believed that life's path is determined by a Force more powerful than fate. I feel the Lord has brought us together for a profound purpose, and that I have been richly blessed for having known you," he wrote.
Bush hasn't suggested that his foreign friendships are a result of divine intervention, but he and his advisers are astute students of Reagan and, like Reagan, the current president sees diplomacy and trust in intensely personal terms, say White House aides. As with Clinton, that approach fits well in a confessional era of tell-all, an era when politicians are meant to display their feelings and not to be buttoned up.
And several foreign leaders have been ready to reciprocate in emphasizing the personal. Britain's Tony Blair, like Bush and Clinton, always has been keen to be overtly chummy with counterparts; his initial coupling with Putin upon the latter's election appeared to be a courtship that would end in authentic intimacy. But disagreement over Iraq has strained that relationship, an example of where policy dispute and national interests limit the power of friendships among international leaders.
The Blair-Bush friendship, though, just keeps redoubling in strength, say insiders, despite some tactical differences over diplomacy in the run-up to the Iraq war, a different perspective on the U.N. role in post-Saddam Iraq and disagreement over how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions. Both leaders have stressed time and again their deep personal friendship, with Bush early on calling Blair a "charming guy." The Briton is no less forthcoming. "We are allies and we are friends," he says.
At times the public bonhomie between the two has reached what some regard as slightly absurd lengths, as in February 2001 when Bush revealed he uses the same brand of Colgate toothpaste as Blair. Even the informal Blair was a little taken aback and, when asked if they had anything else in common, the British prime minister said Bush's list it included the fact that they have "great" wives and children was perhaps long enough to satisfy media curiosity.
The chumminess that developed between Blair and Bush at first also took aback many British politicians and commentators. They had predicted the relationship between the two would be frosty that Bush would keep Blair at arms' length in much the same way Clinton did with Blair's predecessor, the Conservative John Major, and for the same offense namely, too great a closeness with political opponents. …