Commentary Magazine


Topic: David Pilling

Obama’s Appeal Is Lost on World Leaders

Adding weight to the dominant critique of Obama’s foreign policy — that it helps our enemies and hurts our allies — is the parlous state of the U.S.-Japan alliance, the bedrock of our security in Asia since the 1940s. David Pilling of the Financial Times writes:

When Japan’s prime minister visited Washington this month, Japanese officials lobbied intensely to get him a one-on-one with Barack Obama. In the end, Yukio Hatoyama had to settle for just 10 minutes, and even that during a banquet when the US president was presumably more interested in the appetisers and wine. These things matter in Japan. One senior politician called the put-down — as it was inevitably viewed in Tokyo — “humiliating”. He even noted that the Japanese prime minister was shunted to the edge of a group photo, the diplomatic equivalent of banishment to Siberia.

It would be wrong to read too much into these titbits of protocol (though it is always fun trying). But behind the snub lies something real. The US-Japan alliance, the cornerstone of security in east Asia since 1945, has not looked so rocky in years.

Granted, the increasingly rocky relations between the U.S. and Japan are not all, or even mainly, Obama’s fault. Prime Minister Hatoyama and his left-wing party deserve the majority of the blame, because they are trying to reopen negotiations over the American base on Okinawa and generally adopting a more anti-American posture. But Obama isn’t helping.

I am reminded of this important Jackson Diehl column, which pointed out that Obama hasn’t developed a close relationship with a single foreign leader, even while he has managed to increase American popularity abroad. “In this,” Diehl wrote, “he is the opposite of George W. Bush, who was reviled among the foreign masses but who forged close ties with a host of leaders — Aznar of Spain, Uribe of Colombia, Sharon and Olmert of Israel, Koizumi of Japan.” I would add Blair of Britain to that list; the Bush-Blair chemistry was famously close, while Obama is typically aloof in his dealings with Gordon Brown (himself not exactly the world’s friendliest head of state).

Neither the Bush posture (close to foreign leaders, alienated from their publics) nor that of Obama (the darling of foreign publics, alienated from their leaders) is ideal. In theory, you’d like to have the best of both worlds, but that’s perhaps asking far too much of the leader of the world’s superpower. Which is better — the Bush or the Obama position? I’m not sure. But it’s far from clear that Obama’s global popularity is much of a boon for the U.S. insofar as he hasn’t been able to translate his celebrity status into policy results.

Adding weight to the dominant critique of Obama’s foreign policy — that it helps our enemies and hurts our allies — is the parlous state of the U.S.-Japan alliance, the bedrock of our security in Asia since the 1940s. David Pilling of the Financial Times writes:

When Japan’s prime minister visited Washington this month, Japanese officials lobbied intensely to get him a one-on-one with Barack Obama. In the end, Yukio Hatoyama had to settle for just 10 minutes, and even that during a banquet when the US president was presumably more interested in the appetisers and wine. These things matter in Japan. One senior politician called the put-down — as it was inevitably viewed in Tokyo — “humiliating”. He even noted that the Japanese prime minister was shunted to the edge of a group photo, the diplomatic equivalent of banishment to Siberia.

It would be wrong to read too much into these titbits of protocol (though it is always fun trying). But behind the snub lies something real. The US-Japan alliance, the cornerstone of security in east Asia since 1945, has not looked so rocky in years.

Granted, the increasingly rocky relations between the U.S. and Japan are not all, or even mainly, Obama’s fault. Prime Minister Hatoyama and his left-wing party deserve the majority of the blame, because they are trying to reopen negotiations over the American base on Okinawa and generally adopting a more anti-American posture. But Obama isn’t helping.

I am reminded of this important Jackson Diehl column, which pointed out that Obama hasn’t developed a close relationship with a single foreign leader, even while he has managed to increase American popularity abroad. “In this,” Diehl wrote, “he is the opposite of George W. Bush, who was reviled among the foreign masses but who forged close ties with a host of leaders — Aznar of Spain, Uribe of Colombia, Sharon and Olmert of Israel, Koizumi of Japan.” I would add Blair of Britain to that list; the Bush-Blair chemistry was famously close, while Obama is typically aloof in his dealings with Gordon Brown (himself not exactly the world’s friendliest head of state).

Neither the Bush posture (close to foreign leaders, alienated from their publics) nor that of Obama (the darling of foreign publics, alienated from their leaders) is ideal. In theory, you’d like to have the best of both worlds, but that’s perhaps asking far too much of the leader of the world’s superpower. Which is better — the Bush or the Obama position? I’m not sure. But it’s far from clear that Obama’s global popularity is much of a boon for the U.S. insofar as he hasn’t been able to translate his celebrity status into policy results.

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