Obama Often Gets the Cold Shoulder ; Many Foreign Leaders Reject President's Efforts at Personal Diplomacy

By Mark Landler; Peter Baker | International Herald Tribune, June 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

Obama Often Gets the Cold Shoulder ; Many Foreign Leaders Reject President's Efforts at Personal Diplomacy


Mark Landler; Peter Baker, International Herald Tribune


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 leaders.

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 smile.

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 narrowing.

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. …

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