A chemistry lessonPersonal chemistry is a terribly underrated factor in international affairs. When we think about relations between nation-states, we generally think that policy decisions are the result of interests, power and money. But how well two leaders know and like each other at a personal level can be incredibly important.
Personal chemistry is the X-factor. If it doesn’t exist, you get awkward moments at summit press conferences, long silences at the dinner table and both leaders sneaking glances at their watches to see how much time is left in a meeting as each plows through his or her talking points. If you do have chemistry, then summit meetings run overtime, meals become social occasions to talk about family and children and press conferences go smoothly.
More important, the overall level of trust in the relationship is higher. The good feelings permeate down through the government bureaucracy, further cementing relations. If the two leaders agree on something in a phone call, then bureaucracies spring into action, knowing that they will be held accountable for carrying out the agreement. No one wants to fail the personal desires of the two leaders. Without chemistry, policy initiatives between two nations can easily stall in implementation, getting buried in bureaucratic red tape with no effort to untangle it.
Take the Sunnylands summit as an example. Unlike any other U.S.-hosted summit for a foreign leader, U.S. President Barack Obama invited Chinese President Xi Jinping for eight hours of talks over two days at a pastoral estate at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains in California. The two were dressed in shirt sleeves and held long, unscripted sessions while finding nourishment in gourmet cuisine prepared by celebrity chef Bobby Flay. The purpose of this unusual summit was to build personal chemistry with the new Chinese leader. Prior to Sunnylands, the Obama administration tried its hand at visits between Vice President Joe Biden and then-leader-in-waiting Xi. Biden tried everything from sports talk to reminiscing about his grandmother to build the chemistry that many see as necessary to getting anything done with China.
George W. Bush was famous for focusing on chemistry. He would eschew all of his National Security Council staff notes before his first meeting with a foreign leader and instead would look into his or her eyes to assess the person’s soul, as the former president famously said of his first meeting with Vladimir Putin. If the chemistry was there, the president would overrule his staff and offer special treats for his friends, including once taking his good friend Junichiro Koizumi to Graceland in 2006 because he knew of the Japanese premier’s love of Elvis Presley. Sometimes, chemistry will lead leaders to turn White House occasions into simple intimate moments. Bush and Prime Minister John Howard of Australia became very good friends. They had similar political views and similar agendas, both in foreign and domestic policy. So when it came time for Howard’s last visit to the White House, Bush dispensed with a formal meal with VIPs and cabinet members and instead opted for a simple, private dinner between the two couples.
In U.S.-Israeli relations, Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu appear to lack chemistry in their relationship. Indeed, some believed the two leaders genuinely did not like each other after Obama was caught on a hot mike at the G-20 in Cannes commiserating with Nicolas Sarkozy’s gripes about Netanyahu. This idea started to color the entire relationship, adding greater significance to the fact that Obama did not travel to its closest Mideast ally until March 2013, over four years after taking office. This was why the two leaders worked so hard in a recent summit to make jokes and wisecracks to each other. These public displays of levity are important. They cause the press to write stories that highlight the positive sides of the relationship, which then feed back into the overall narrative of the relationship.
At the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg last week, a lot of the focus was on the personal relationship between Obama and Putin. The U.S. president recently derisively referred to Putin as a bored child in the back of the class. He canceled a meeting with him prior to the St. Petersburg G-20 summit to protest Moscow’s decision to grant political asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency employee who leaked reports about NSA surveillance. When asked about the personal chemistry between the two leaders, a press spokesman for the Russian side took a long pause and answered that it was professional, as one would expect between two world leaders. Translation: There is no chemistry.
But why is chemistry important? In the Putin-Obama case, the two countries are at a critical point in responding to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Washington accuses Moscow of blocking a UN resolution sanctioning the use of force against Syria. With the personal relationship poisoned by the Snowden case, there is very little hope that Putin is going to be doing any favors for Obama on Syria. A different relationship between the leaders might have led to a different outcome. At a minimum there would be less outright public cynicism and backbiting from both sides.
Chemistry is important. As Elliott Abrams, a former White House deputy national security adviser, explained: “The most important issues are handled at top levels among individuals who either do or do not understand and trust each other. They know how far each can go, and what genuine political constraints exist. They know what is a fair request, and what is unfair pressure. In all of this personal relations and chemistry are really very important.”
Thankfully President Park Geun-hye appears to have built good chemistry in her initial meetings with Obama and Xi. Trust and understanding among the three will be necessary to navigate difficult and unpredictable waters ahead.
*The author is the D.S. Song-KF chair and professor at Georgetown University as well as a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
BY Victor Cha