Guy W. Farmer: PR not a substitute for policy
President Obama’s recent Asia trip demonstrated yet again that foreigners generally like our charismatic president a lot, but exactly how does his personal popularity translate into concrete accomplishments in the defense of U.S. national interests? In my considered opinion as a retired diplomat, there’s a huge disconnect between Obama’s popularity and successful foreign policies.
To illustrate my point I’ll recall an American ambassador to Mexico who was very well liked because he played the trombone in a Mexico City jazz band. But was he a successful ambassador? Not necessarily, because diplomacy isn’t a popularity contest. Rather, a successful American diplomat is someone who effectively supports, defends and explains our policies and is relentless in the defense of our national interests.
Our diplomats must avoid “client-itis,” a syndrome that involves attempting to be more Italian than the Italians, for example. I once had a young officer on my staff in Bogota who tried to ingratiate himself with the Colombians by calling himself “Tito” and wearing a colorful poncho until I explained to him that he needed to wear a suit and tie like the rest of us. After all, we represented the U.S., not Colombia.
All of this relates to President Obama’s recent trip to Asia because the president downplayed contentious policy issues in order to ingratiate himself with his hosts, as he did when he bowed to the Emperor of Japan. Note to the White House: American presidents don’t bow to anyone. Period.
New York Times correspondents Helene Cooper and Martin Fackler accurately described Obama’s Asia trip as “a long, uphill slog.” Our first “Pacific president” (his description) faced intractable foreign policy issues at every stop: monetary policy in China; trade in Singapore, China and South Korea and security issues in Japan. The general consensus is that our popular president made very little progress on these issues.
In China, Cooper and Fackler noted that Obama avoided public meetings with dissidents and free press advocates even as Chinese authorities “hijacked” a Shanghai town hall meeting “by stuffing the room with young Communist Party aspirants.” In other words, Obama played by their rules in contrast to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who told Pakistani officials what they didn’t want to hear – that they’re not trying hard enough to capture Osama bin Laden – when she visited Islamabad last month.
I join those who question Obama’s “biography-as-diplomacy” approach to foreign policy. The key question is whether the president’s compelling personal story will yield the concrete results he seeks from foreign leaders, in addition to increasing his personal popularity. So far, the results are disappointing.
• Guy W. Farmer of Carson City served for nearly 30 years in the U.S. Foreign Service before retiring in 1995.