Do Personal Relationships Matter In International, Or Domestic, Politics?

Does it matter if political leaders like each other on some personal level? Sometimes it does.

Obama and Putin

A report in The New York Times today starts off by detailing the racy icy encounters that President Obama has had with the leaders of the United States’ two primary competitors for power on the world stage today, China and Russia:

WASHINGTON — Over porterhouse steak and cherry pie at a desert estate in California earlier this month, President Obama delivered a stern lecture to President Xi Jinping about China’s disputes with its neighbors. If it is going to be a rising power, he scolded, it needs to behave like one.

The next morning, Mr. Xi punched back, accusing the United States of the same computer hacking tactics it attributed to China. It was, Mr. Obama acknowledged, “a very blunt conversation.”

Ten days later, in Northern Ireland, Mr. Obama had another tough meeting with a prickly leader, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. At odds with him over the Syrian civil war, Mr. Obama tried to lighten the mood by joking about how age was depleting their athletic skills. Mr. Putin, a decade older and fending off questions at home about his health, seemed sensitive on the point. “The president just wants to get me to relax,” he said with a taut smile.

While tangling with the leaders of two cold war antagonists of the United States is nothing new, the two bruising encounters in such a short span underscore a hard reality for Mr. Obama as he heads deeper into a second term that may come to be dominated by foreign policy: his main counterparts on the world stage are not his friends, and they make little attempt to cloak their disagreements in diplomatic niceties.

Now, to be honest, I’m not so sure that it’s all that important that the President of the United States have friendly personal relationships with the leaders of China and Russia. After all, all three men represent nations that have their own interests. Sometimes those interests are at least parallel if not identical, but quite often those interests are at odds and that requires discussions that, while diplomatic, are often quite blunt. Granted, there have been times in the past when leaders of adversarial nations did seem to develop some sort of personal chemistry that helped guide the way through tumultuous times. Most notably, such a relationship seems to have clearly been established in the final years of the Cold War between Mikhail Gorbachev and both President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. Boris Yeltsin also seemed to get along with President Clinton fairly well, but then Yeltsin was quite often mercurial and bizarre. For the most part, though, I don’t think it can really be said that our Presidents have had good personal relationships with the leaders of adversarial nations, or that it would be particularly helpful if they did.

Additionally, it’s arguably the case that the personal relationship with the leader of an adversarial power on the world stage is typically a reflection of the relationship between the nations. The personal relationship between President Obama and Vladimir Putin is, as the photo above illustrates quite well, icy to say the least but, then again, so is the relationship between the United States and Russia on a whole host of issues. As for China, our relationship with them is, well, complicated seems as good a word as any, so “it’s complicated” would seem like an appropriate Facebook era description of the relationship between President Obama and President Xi.

Daniel Drezner, however, points out that the Times story points out something that may be of more concern:

My concern reading Baker and Landler’s story isn’t about the lack of warmth between Obama and great power rivals, but rather the lack of warmth between Obama and U.S. allies.  The story notes that relations with French president Francoise Hollande are strained for a number of reasons.  Obama has made committed numerous small faux-pas with his British counterparts as well.  Landler and Baker fail to identify any personal relationship between Obama and an allied leader that is particularly warm (though Chuck Todd suggests Angela Merkel).  The only “warm personal relationship” the press has identified between Obama and a current world leader is Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  Unfortunately, as Indian foreign policy analysts like to stress, the United States is not their ally and New Delhi is not ready for prime time on the global diplomatic stage anyway.

It would seem that Obama has a deficit of close personal allies and confidantes at G-20 meetings or other confabs.  Which isn’t exactly a big deal but seems a bit problematic.  Sometimes advice from staffers, underlings, or even cabinet members can be dismissed in a way that advice from a nominal peer cannot.  All leaders — especially powerful ones — are served well by a coterie of allies who can speak truth to power.

In some sense, this observation about President Obama is one that has carried over to domestic policy as well. Virtually from the time he took office in 2009, observers of domestic politics and especially Capitol Hill have noted that the President has been extremely reluctant to engage in the kind of one-on-one contact with Members of the House and the Senate that previous Presidents have. In many cases, that personal contact has allowed past Presidents to develop personal relationship, even across the political aisle, that allowed them to influence events in Congress. The examples from recent history are well known. Despite their often bitter political disagreements, President Reagan and Tip O’Neill developed a common bond from their shared Irish ancestry that allowed them to work together on two controversial budget plans in a row in the early 1980s, and a plan to save Social Security from an imminent fiscal crisis. President George H.W. Bush’s long service in Washington allowed him to develop personal relationship with many people on both sides of the aisle and, of course President Clinton was perhaps the best at playing this game since Lyndon Johnson. Even President George W. Bush managed to develop a relationship with an ideological rival like Ted Kennedy that aided in passage of more than one piece of major legislation.

President Obama, on the other hand, seems to eschew even trying to make these kind of contacts. It took him nearly three years to have a one-on-one meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, arguably one of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill even when the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress. The day that he ended up inviting John Boehner to play golf was such a break from his normal routine that it became a top news story. Even with members of his own party, the complaint often heard from Capitol Hill reporters passing along what they’re told is that the President prefers to have his aides deal even with top Congressional leaders rather than getting involved personally, even when getting involved personally would actually help the situation far more than sending yet another Deputy Chief of Staff to take a meeting.  Some might argue that there’s really no point in the President trying to establish a working relationship with adversaries on the Hill given the hostility that they project on a daily basis. Perhaps that’s true, but it strikes me that there’s no reason to have at least not given it a try. Moreover, it’s important to realize that the rhetoric you hear from leaders like Boehner and McConnell in public is largely a reflection of how far they feel their caucus will allow them to go. In private, during negotiations, there’s at least some possibility of developing a personal relationship that can make the difficult task of trying to govern in a nation as divided as ours just a little bit easier.

To his credit, President Obama has seemed to change in this regard in recent months. He’s hosted dinners with several groups of Republican and Democratic Senators over the past few months, and invited a group of GOP Senators to join him on the golf course, something which resulted in one Senator getting a hole in one. Will things like this help move things like immigration reform through Congress? That’s hard to say, but it can’t really hurt either can it?

On the international side, it’s obvious that Obama lacks the kind of close relationship that President Reagan had with leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, and Helmut Kohl, or that President’s Clinton and George W. Bush had with Tony Blair. Arguably, that has made the job of international diplomacy more difficult, especially when one is dealing with difficult issues like the war in Syria, or embarrassing ones like the recent revelations over NSA surveillance, which has not been well-received in Europe at all. Of course, As Drezner points out, those kind of relationships aren’t always a good thing either. The relationships between Tony Blair and Bush 43 produced, as he put it, “mixed results” to say the very best. At the same time, though, it does strike me that having good relationships with the leaders of nations that we may need help from some day is probably a good thing in the long run.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. george says:

    It shouldn’t, but it probably does. But I doubt it matters much, especially between major powers.

  2. Rob in CT says:

    I’m sure it can matter, a little. But I think it’s swamped by interests. And hell, how do you really separate the two? Say you have two sets of two leaders. The first set sits down to discuss a trade deal and find themselves in a low-stress session, lots of common ground, etc. They’ll be inclined to like one another, no? The other set sit down and find out very quickly they have substantial disagreements. Both are good at what they do: argue for their side. This results in some hard feelings.

    Granted, one can have admiration for an opponent. It’s not so simple as policy differences = dislike. Still, it’s a lot easier to get along if your interests are aligned rather than opposed.

    Similarly, in sports if a team is winning there will be articles about the team’s “chemistry.” Well yeah, winning is fun! Teams that are losing will be accused of poor chemistry (and it may be true! Losing sucks!).

  3. NickTamere says:

    …..even when getting involved personally would actually help the situation far more than sending yet another Deputy Chief of Staff to take a meeting.

    There is no evidence that this is the case unless by “situation” you mean “GOP”. Do people really believe that republican recalcitrance is due to fictional Obama snubs and not their “none shall pass” approach of filibustering everything beneficial to the country and president? The result of his golf outreach to Boehner and the GOP was what exactly? As for Obama’s relationship with our allies, he may not be close personal friends with any of them (he’s not going to be giving Merkel a backrub anytime soon) but is there any evidence that’s had any negative repercussions for US policy? The only ally that sticks out as being very critical was Lula in Brazil.

  4. Blue Shark says:

    …I would conclude the Reagan/Gorbachev relationship altered contemporaneous events dramatically.

    …I also would have to think that “W” was disliked by the entire planet and that also affected events.

  5. rudderpedals says:

    Yes some relationships matter a lot but mainly in negative ways. For ex., if you take your correspondent as loathesome and irredeemable, or vice versa, it’s a big negative.

    Nothing else matters besides power/money.

  6. @rudderpedals:

    Some would argue that the relationship between Thatcher and Bush 41, and the forceful argument she made to him regarding the need to do something about Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, are what set in motion the events that led to the Persian Gulf War

  7. stonetools says:

    I doubt that this friendship thing matters that much. Great powers have interests, not friends. Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin weren’t friends, but they cooperated enough to win WW2.Lincoln’s cabinet was famously a team of rivals, but they were enough of a union to save the union.
    I think good personal relationships would make things better, but you can’t orchestrate those things. If you look at the backgrounds and personalities of Obama, Merkel, Cameron, and Hollande, its amazing that they can get into a room and talk sociably at all. To expect that they would all be friends is too much, really.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    I’m sorry, but this obsession with Obama’s personal relationships and whether he’s played enough golf with Boehner feels too much like a crutch for Beltway VSPs who can’t get past the cocktail circuit gossip level of analysis and another way for Republicans to attack Obama over trivia.

  9. Pinky says:

    @stonetools: But Churchill and Roosevelt were friends. And Lincoln’s “team of rivals” was pretty lousy. Cameron was corrupt, and Bates and Chase undermined him whenever they felt it was an advantage to them. Seward was a gem though – who became friends with Lincoln, which may argue against your point.

  10. stonetools says:


    I’d say Churchill and Roosevelt became friends over time. They didn’t start out as friends, though, and they were never that close even at the end. Churchill loathed Stalin, and Roosevelt thought of him only as someone who he could do business with. (He was wrong about that)
    Lincoln’s cabinet was made up mostly of people who thought that they should have been President instead of him. I think only Seward became his friend.
    In both situations, it was really interests, rather than friendships, that drove these men to work together.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    Of course relationships matter. Are there humans involved? Then the relationships matter. The idea that you’ll get two or more humans to behave exactly the same whether they hate one of the other parties, or like one of the other parties, is so transparently dumb that only STEMfolk could believe it.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that personal relationships matter both in international and domestic politics. As Michael notes, of course they do.

    Unfortunately, the president doesn’t seem to share that belief.

  13. Console says:

    At a basic lobbying standpoint, your goal isn’t really to get a political actor to agree with your argument… it’s to build a personal relationship with that legislator so that he’ll even listen to your argument in the first place.

    But in all reality, this is sort of a moot point. In something like foreign policy, the stakes are too large to plan around emotion and feelings. And even in domestic policy, the same is true.The way people exert and use power is based on real constraints that aren’t surmounted just because you went golfing with the guy. So you can’t plan policy based on schmoozing. Even if schmoozing (or strong arming) is something that you should do.

  14. Jeremy R says:

    What evidence is there that the President’s foreign head’s of state relations are worse than previous administrations? Cameron practically campaigned for him during the last election.

    You’re combining an idiotic beltway meme (pushed by congressional republicans) and Drezner’s conjecture (based on the abscense of something in a NYT article and BS right-wing & dailymail “snubs”) into some unified theory of Obama’s Presidential leadership.

  15. Obama lacks the kind of close relationship that President Reagan had with leaders like Margaret Thatcher

    The same Margaret Thatcher that said she couldn’t trust Reagan after he lied to her about the invasion of Grenada?

  16. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Personal relationships help if you’re trying to forge an alliance (FDR-Churchill-Stalin) or reinvigorate one (Reagan-Thatcher). At the moment, I’d say Obama’s reluctance to put enough time into close dealings with Congress is more of an impediment to his effectiveness.

  17. superdestroyer says:

    As the U.S. becomes a one party state, personal relationships will become the currency that drives politics. Look at the clouts in places like Chicago or Mass., and one sees the future. When insiders are picking the candidates who will win elections, personal relationships will be important.

    If you want to see the future of politics in the U.S. look at Rep Robin Kelly. She was picked by the clounts of Chicago to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. He was elected in a rout and will probably never face a competitve election again. In such a political system, personal relationships will drive politics and governance.

  18. Caj says:

    It helps if leaders get along but at the end of the day the leader of any country should be looking out for the best interests of their own country. In the case of Netanyahu in my opinion he doesn’t care if he gets on with anyone, he just wants to be right and have people fall at feet especially the US to do his bidding! Sadly for years we as a country have done exactly that where Israel is concerned. They say jump, we say how high. Putin is a cold fish anyway but I feel he prefers to show off his body as he appears to love himself far more than the people he’s supposed to represent. President Obama and Angela Merkel seem to have a really good relationship which is nice to see.

  19. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    though Chuck Todd suggests Angela Merkel

    As far as we can tell in Germany, the two can’t stand each other but take pains to fuss over each other to paper over the cracks.

  20. george says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I think the question is more to what extent they matter. And that goes beyond the “professionalism” of the leaders in question. Most of the time the leaders are surrounded by their own people, each with their own agendas, likes and dislikes. I’d bet those people have their own likes/dislikes with respect to the other nation’s peoples, and its probably largely a mixed bag (ie some likes, some dislikes).

    As for the STEM comment, as many grad students from various departments will tell you, its often the STEM profs who are more personable (ranging from allowing use of first names to giving free access of their time) than the humanities profs, for the simple reason that its widely accepted in STEM fields that success depends upon team work. You can write a novel by yourself. You’re unlikely to make a significant advance in any science or engineering (other than math) without an excellent team.

  21. mannning says:


    Re: STEM

    The same teamwork need is obviously present in super endeavors such as the manned spacecraft program, and any significant system design, development and production efforts.
    The key is in the genius of the leaders to create a team or teams–or not. Lack of leadership qualities and respect in one or the other participant can easily cause friction between annointed leaders of teams of major import. Obama versus Putin comes to mind.