Obama's Foreign Policy: Nothing Personal

05/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I read Marc Ambinder's report of Obama's meeting today with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, the following passage stuck out:

At a briefing with reporters this morning, senior administration officials seemed to go out of their way to define the content of the developing Obama-Medvevev relationship as being workmanlike, rather than personal. "Out strategy was not to make the goal of the meetings to establish some buddy relationship," an SAO said. "The goal is to advance our interests. Having dialogue is a means.... but the goal is not to have a personal relationship."

Now take a look at what Obama said in his joint appearance with Gordon Brown at the White House last month:

Well, first of all, the special relationship between the United States and Great Britain is one that is not just important to me, it's important to the American people. And it is sustained by a common language, a common culture; our legal system is directly inherited from the English system; our system of government reflects many of these same values. So -- and by the way, that's also where my mother's side of my family came from.

So I think this notion that somehow there is any lessening of that special relationship is misguided. Great Britain is one of our closest, strongest allies and there is a link, a bond there that will not break. And I think that's true not only on the economic front, but also on issues of common security.

At the time, much of the British press -- and a not inconsiderable portion of the MSM in the States -- hyperventilated over what Obama's supposed "snub" of the Brits. No State Dinner! He returned the Churchill statue! He gave the PM DVDs as a gift! OMG the Special Relationship is no longer special! In contrast, Obama's meeting with Brown this morning was low-key, restrained and focused on the the challenges facing the G-20 -- as it should be.

Next, take a look at part of the President's statement on his Administration's strategy for Afghanistan-Pakistan:

The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan. In the nearly eight years since 9/11, al Qaeda and its extremist allies have moved across the border to the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier. This almost certainly includes al Qaeda's leadership: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. They have used this mountainous terrain as a safe haven to hide, to train terrorists, to communicate with followers, to plot attacks, and to send fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan. For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world.

The object is to defeat al Qaeda, not get bin Laden. Similarly, the Administration has made it clear (albeit informally) that it no longer will refer to the conflict with al Qaeda as the "Global War on Terror."

So what do these stories and statements have in common? For Obama, foreign policy is not a frat party. Brown is not his "staunch friend." Medvedev is neither a "soul" mate or "troublesome and unhelpful." And Osama bin Laden, no matter how despicable he may be, is the leader of a dangerous terrorist organization, not an "evil-doer."

Unlike his predecessor, who personalized everything (see "Blossom, Turd"), Obama is keeping his distance, regardless of whether he is dealing with a friend, competitor, or enemy. He is pursing a businesslike approach to foreign policy, focusing on country-to-country relations, not private relationships.

That is pretty much a textbook example of realism. He views relationships as a function of American interests, and acts accordingly. The downside of this approach is that some issues, such as human rights, are less likely to impress the President as priorities simple because it's the right thing to do. He still may (or may not) champion human rights, but he'll do so because it is in America's best interest.

As I noted on my own blog, Undiplomatic, the morning after Obama's election,

[A]n Obama administration is likely to pursue a foreign policy based on sound strategic principles and coherent tactics. Realism should trump ideology, and principles should trump interests. Call it pragmatic idealism, if you must apply a label. . . . [It] is possible that, to use Acheson's famous phrase, we are once again "present at the creation" of a new paradigm, one that focuses on what the United States can do for the world, not what the world can do for the United States. This may take more time than originally envisioned, in large part because the financial crisis will draw away important resources from the task. But in the end, Obama has the opportunity to remake the way the United States pursues its interests in the world.

I still think that's pretty accurate, although it looks like the emphasis is more on pragmatism than idealism.

Obama has to walk a pretty fine line on his current trip. He must demonstrate leadership without looking like the United States still has the ability -- or the credibility -- to define the agenda. He must demonstrate to other world leaders that he can push his ideas forcefully without trying to cram them down their throat. He must demonstrate a willingness to compromise without looking weak.

If he pulls all of that off, it might be because he didn't try to treat everyone as his pal. It's a pretty sensible approach, and it mirrors his "no drama" persona.

It's going to be a fascinating few days.