What Obama's grip and grin with Hugo Chávez says about his foreign policy.

Military analysis.
April 21 2009 5:19 PM

Handshake Diplomacy

What Obama's grip and grin with Hugo Chávez says about his foreign policy.

Barack Obama and Hugo Chávez.  Click image to expand.
Barack Obama and Hugo Chávez

It's been so long since we've had a president disposed to diplomacy that many observers don't know what to think when they see one.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Take President Barack Obama's recent trip to the Summit of the Americas. At his April 19 press conference at Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, he delivered—spontaneously, in response to a question—an eloquent summary of what an "Obama doctrine" might be, a succinct appraisal of the nature of power and foreign policy in the post-Cold War world.

And yet the media for the most part ignored this display of strategic acumen and focused on a moment, two days earlier, at the summit's opening ceremony, when Obama, approached by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, smiled and shook his hand.

One Republican senator gasped that it was "irresponsible" for the president to be "laughing and joking" with "one of the most anti-American leaders in the entire world." Former Vice President Dick Cheney grumbled on Fox News that the handshake "was not helpful" and could lead America's foes to "think they're dealing with a weak president." NBC's Andrea Mitchell likened the cordial greeting to John F. Kennedy's Vienna summit with Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961, when the Soviet premier sized up the young president as a lightweight and, as a result, sent missiles to Cuba, sparking the gravest crisis of the nuclear era.

To which one can only respond: Are these people serious?

It might be a good thing for politicians and reporters to read a little history before indulging in historical analogies.

At the Vienna summit, Khrushchev warned Kennedy that if the West didn't give up its access rights to West Berlin by the end of the year, he would declare war and grab the city by force. At the time, the Soviet Union had 3 million troops occupying Eastern Europe, backed by an arsenal of nuclear weapons (though not as many as the United States thought), the two superpowers were locked in global ideological conflict, and the free enclave of West Berlin was landlocked 100 miles inside East German territory. Kennedy came away thinking he might face the prospect of war in a matter of months.

At the Americas summit, Chávez came up to Obama at a reception while cameras were whirring and handed him a book. Venezuela is a tiny country with one large oil company, a military budget barely 1 percent that of the United States, and no ability to project power beyond its borders.

When asked about this tête-à-tête at his press conference, Obama—properly—laughed off the criticism. He acknowledged Chávez's "inflammatory" anti-American rhetoric and their "great differences" on economic and foreign policy. However, he added:

It's unlikely that, as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chávez, that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.

Anyone who thinks otherwise, I would add, must be a little bit crazy.

The shockwaves over the handshake might best be explained as a hangover from the long years of George W. Bush's presidency, when dealings with those who disliked us were expressly forbidden, out of a vague fear that such contact might debilitate us or legitimize them. This fear is what was "not helpful." It tended to elevate the standing of a pipsqueak like Chávez; it made him seem more ominous than he was, and it made America seem like a he-man who's frightened by a mouse. By contrast, Obama's insouciant civility, far from appearing weak, strikes a chord of sense and self-confidence.

But our current president's approach isn't merely about polishing America's image; it also stands to serve America's tangible interests. And this is where his remarks on an "Obama doctrine" come into play.

NBC's Chuck Todd posed the question at the summit's-end press conference: "After observing you on the world stage the last three weeks, what are the pillars of 'the Obama doctrine'?"

Obama poked fun at the loftiness of the phrase, but then said, "There are a couple of principles that I've tried to apply across the board."

First, he said, the United States is the most powerful nation on earth, but today's problems can't be solved by just one country. So we have to "listen and not just talk," recognizing "that other countries have good ideas, too, and we want to hear them."

Second, the United States "at our best" represents "a set of universal values and ideals"—democracy, freedom of speech, the idea of a civil society. But since other countries have different cultures, perspectives, and histories, "we do our best to promote our ideals and our values" not by imposing them or by lecturing but rather "by our example." Therefore, Obama went on,

if we are practicing what we preach and if we occasionally confess to having strayed from our values and our ideals, that strengthens our hand; that allows us to speak with greater moral force and clarity around these issues.

Many of Obama's critics seriously underestimate this issue; they don't detect the great relief of our allies, or the discomfort of our enemies, when—after eight years of insufferable self-righteousness—an American president acknowledges mortal flaws and misjudgments; as long as it's not accompanied by self-flagellation, this is the exact opposite of "weakness."

Then Obama came to the point. Merely talking and listening won't transform international politics, he acknowledged. "Countries are going to have interests," he said; sometimes their interests will diverge from ours, and a more diplomatic approach to foreign policy won't make those differences disappear, won't make other countries alter their interests. However, he continued:

What it does mean, though, is, at the margins, they are more likely to want to cooperate than not cooperate. It means that where there is resistance to a particular set of policies that we're pursuing, that resistance may turn out just to be based on old preconceptions or ideological dogmas that, when they're cleared away, it turns out that we can actually solve a problem.

And so, we're still going to have very tough negotiations on a whole host of issues. … That's not going to change because I'm popular … or leaders think that I've been respectful towards them. On the other hand, by having established those better relations, it means that … there's more confidence that working with the United States is beneficial, and they are going to try to do more than they might otherwise have done.

One result of the summit, he continued, is that it's now easier for friends, like Mexico or Colombia, to work with the United States "because their neighbors and their populations see us as a force for good or at least not a force for ill."

As for less-friendly countries like Venezuela, though Obama did not say so, an unthreatening picture of America at the very least takes the wind out of Chávez, who has built power, at home and in some quarters abroad, by waving his fist at America and likening George Bush to "el diablo." And, who knows, it might maneuver Chávez more into our lane, too. "Even within this imaginative crowd," Obama said to the press corps, "I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of … having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela."

And so, Obama's talk of building alliances and listening to others is not a celebration of multilateralism for its own sake. It's a hard-headed formula for advancing U.S. interests in a world where we have less leverage than we did during Cold War times to impose our will on a whim. There isn't quite yet an "Obama doctrine," as he would no doubt acknowledge. More time and a couple of crises will be needed to see how he translates his ideas into action. But for the moment, his words—and, yes, his handshakes—reflect a realism, in the best sense of the word, as opposed to the crackpot-realist daydreams of an obsessive ex-vice president and the historical cluelessness of certain newscasters.