Observing the White House’s Improving Diplomacy

When Senator Barack Obama ran for president of the United States, a major critique of him was his relative inexperience. The argument went that Mr. Obama just didn’t have enough time under his belt to govern the country, and it was used against him throughout the campaign.

This attack was not just political posturing. Many Mr. Obama’s political opponents – from former president Bill Clinton to Senator John McCain – genuinely believed that he did not have what it took to run the world’s most powerful country.

It has therefore been interesting to observe the affair of Mr. Obama actually running the world’s most powerful country.

In the beginning, the Obama administration did make several amateurish mistakes. These blunders were not of the strategic sort, but rather relatively small-fry things. They generally involved diplomatic protocol, or unintended embarrassment to important countries.

These were also things that tended to be out of Mr. Obama’s control. Most mistakes were made by new staffers green to the job, who should have taken care of obvious things but did not.

In March 2009, for instance, Mr. Brown visited the White House and gave the president a priceless gift: a “pen holder made from the wood of a warship that helped stamp out the slave trade – a sister ship of the vessel from which timbers were taken to build Mr Obama’s Oval Office desk.” Mr. Obama and his staff, new to the job and overwhelmed by the sudden work load, returned the favor by giving the Prime Minister a box set of Hollywood DVDs. For weeks after this gaffe, Great Britain’s infamously opinionated newspapers lamented the snub (see the linked article for one example).

There are other examples of diplomatic gaffes made as the Obama administration was still getting its bearings straight. These were mistakes like announcing plans to scrap a missile defense plan in Eastern Europe on September 17, 2009 – a date which happened to be the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. Or, in an attempt to improve diplomatic relations, handing the Russian Foreign Minister a red “restart” button – with the Russian word “restart” misspelled.

Now, these blunders were not things countries go to war over. Most people – even the most politically engaged – have forgotten them, and conservative critics have generally been silent on the subject. Nevertheless, they were still sources of considerable diplomatic embarrassment.

The good news is that all these blunders came in 2009. As the Obama administration has settled in to the job, diplomatic gaffes have generally disappeared. Those blunders that were made after two months on the job would not be made today. There have been no Gordon Brown-type incidents since at least the end of 2009. After one and a half years as president, the administration now knows what gifts to give to important visitors (i.e. not DVDs), what dates to avoid announcing certain things on, how to spell in Russian, and so on.

More fortunately, these diplomatic gaffes have not led to anything seriously damaging to the United States. Despite the “restart” mess, relations with Russia have still improved markedly. Great Britain still remains a firm and committed ally to the United States, as does most of Eastern Europe. And for all his greenness, at least Mr. Obama is doing better than former president George W. Bush. At this point in Mr. Bush’s presidency, after all, Mr. Bush had just began a prolonged public relations campaign to invade Iraq.

This entry was posted in Asia, Barack Obama, Europe, Foreign Affairs and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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