Thursday, November 13, 2008

Obama learns an early lesson about diplomacy

During the campaign, Obama took a lot of flak for his stated willingness to meet promptly after taking office with some of America's toughest adversaries. While he later backed away from that stance, he may not have quite understood why it was a such a bad idea. Now, he's probably learning, as some conservatives have already knocked him over the misunderstanding that arose from his brief conversation with Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who called to congratulate him.

In the call, Kaczynski raised the issue that is uppermost in his mind these days -- the deal to base an American missile defense system in Poland. Shortly before the call, Russian President Medvedev had issued what can only be regarded as a threat designed to test Obama by saying that Russia would target the U.S. missile defenses if they were deployed. Whatever Obama actually said to Kaczynski, the latter told the press that the President-elect had affirmed the deal, and Obama felt obliged to contradict him publicly.

The lesson for Obama is this: whatever the President says or doesn't say to another head of state or government or a high-ranking foreign emissary in any conversation, however casually, is a big deal. His words can be taken to commit the United States to a particular policy or to herald a policy change. He can be misunderstood, even when he believes he is being utterly clear. He can appear to others to be acting weakly or defensively -- the potential problem Republicans have dwelt on for a year. Or he can seem to be overly aggressive, rough or arrogant, even when he believes his words and manner are accomodating. And political, cultural and language differences can magnify the difficulties.

One of America's greatest diplomats, Dean Acheson, observed in his memoir, Present at the Creation, that nothing gave him greater anxiety than the prospect of the President meeting face to face with foreign leaders, whether friendly or not, despite his enormous respect and affection for Harry Truman. Whatever understandings ministers like Acheson might reach could always be modified or even repudiated by the President, but the President spoke for the nation, and his word was final. Misunderstandings at lower levels could always be worked out, but at the "summit," the nation would be stuck with the consequences. That's why successful diplomacy depends so often on the meticulous construction and refinement of language through a process that works its way up to a final approval by the President and his counterparts.

Poland is an important ally of the U.S., particularly with respect to the future of NATO and the West's relationship with Russia. Two months before his inauguration, as a result of some sort of misstep and despite his obvious caution, Obama has managed to embarass or perhaps anger Poland's president. I'm sure he has learned this lesson.

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