Whether sharing pie with Xi Jinping or chatting about aging with
Vladimir Putin, President Barack Obama seems to have a harder time
than his predecessors in sustaining friendships with foreign
Over porterhouse steak and cherry pie at a desert estate in
California this month, President Barack Obama delivered a stern
lecture to President Xi Jinping about China's disputes with its
neighbors. If it is going to be a rising power, he scolded, it needs
to behave like one.
The next morning, Mr. Xi punched back, accusing the United States
of the same computer hacking tactics it attributed to China. It was,
Mr. Obama said, "a very blunt conversation."
Ten days later, in Northern Ireland, Mr. Obama had another tough
meeting with a prickly leader, President Vladimir V. Putin. At odds
with him over Russia's stance on the Syrian civil war, Mr. Obama
tried to lighten the mood by joking about how age was depleting
their athletic skills. Mr. Putin, a decade older and fending off
questions at home about his health, seemed sensitive on the point.
"The president just wants to get me to relax," he said with a taut
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 met in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel,
who had invited him to deliver a speech at the Brandenburg Gate. But
Ms. Merkel pressed Mr. Obama about the National Security Agency's
surveillance programs, which offend privacy-minded Germans.
For all of his efforts to cultivate personal ties with foreign
counterparts over the past 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.
"In Europe, especially, Obama was welcomed with open arms, and
some people had unrealistic expectations about him," said R.
Nicholas Burns, a longtime senior U.S. diplomat. Noting that Mr.
Obama had continued some unpopular policies like the use of drones,
he said, "People don't appreciate that American interests continue
from administration to administration."
White House officials said Mr. Obama's meetings with Mr. Xi and
Mr. Putin had been productive, regardless of the atmospherics. One
of the president's most problematic relationships, that with Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has improved since he visited Jerusalem
in March, with their differences over Iran's nuclear program
Still, for a naturally reserved president who has assiduously
cultivated a handful of leaders, it has been a dispiriting stretch.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Mr. Obama views as a
new kind of Muslim leader, has used tear gas and water cannons
against protesters in Istanbul. Mohamed Morsi, the former Muslim
Brotherhood leader whom Mr. Obama telephoned repeatedly after he
became president of Egypt, suspended the Constitution and granted
himself unlimited powers, though he also cut off ties with Syria.
Mr. Obama spent nearly four years befriending Mr. Putin's
predecessor, Dmitri A. Medvedev, hoping to build him up as a
counterweight to Mr. Putin. That never happened, and Mr. Obama finds
himself back at square one with a Russian leader who appears less
likely than ever to find common ground with the United States on
issues like Syria.
Administration officials maintain that their bet on Mr. …