Make no entangling foreign frenemies

April 16, 2012

It’s often said that kinship runs deeper than friendship. Lately, when it comes to chumminess among world leaders and their colleagues in neighboring countries, friendship has trumped citizenship.

Until recently, it was rare to find leaders willing to forge friendships with candidates across borders or to find would-be leaders campaigning inside foreign countries. There are good reasons for that: Candidates who cross these lines can find it harder to win elections or to govern once the electoral test is passed. Their foreign friends can pay a price for backing the wrong horse and for forfeiting a bit of diplomatic leverage once they find themselves sitting across the bargaining table from the man or woman they campaigned against. Consider three current examples.

Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s support for the re-election bid of French President Nicolas Sarkozy is especially startling. It’s hardly surprising that Merkel wants Sarkozy to win. The two leaders have forged a durable personal relationship as they navigated their way through Europe’s ongoing crisis of confidence. The French and German leaders deserve considerable praise for their well-coordinated bid to bolster the euro zone.

But for Merkel, there’s a big difference between privately willing Sarkozy on and campaigning at his side across France – particularly at a time when Sarkozy trails Socialist Party challenger François Hollande significantly in opinion polls. Given the populist mood in France, Merkel’s stated reasons for supporting Sarkozy – that he is a conservative candidate whose party is philosophically aligned with her own Christian Democratic Union – sounds less like a boost for his campaign than a nail in his coffin.

And in the end, Merkel will have important work to do with France’s next president, whoever that turns out to be.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Mitt Romney (and Barack Obama)

When you run for president of the United States, you have to say some pretty unrealistic things to get elected. Mitt Romney, for instance, recently singled out Russia as America’s top geopolitical foe and said he would be tougher on Iran than Obama has been. On social and economic issues, Romney has already begun tacking toward the center as the likely GOP nominee, and if he wins in November, the demands of his new job will force him back toward conventional positions on foreign affairs.

But Romney may have an unusual number of knots to untie on Israel and the Middle East, in part because of his special, longtime friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mitt and Bibi go back almost 30 years, when they met at a Boston consulting firm where both worked. They have kept up the friendship over the years, and therein lies the problem. Just as candidate Romney attacks Obama for being soft on Iran, Israel’s Netanyahu is begging for U.S. support for a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The two men agree entirely on Iran and the threats it poses – at least while Romney is on the campaign trail rather than in the Oval Office. But if Romney wins, could his relationship with Bibi cloud his judgment on Iran? And if Romney loses – what happens to Netanyahu’s already frosty relationship with President Obama?

Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev

Of course, Obama has a bromance of his own. In March, Russia’s presidential election drew allegations of voter fraud both at home and abroad as the country’s top two politicians switched jobs – again. Yet the U.S. president has offered little criticism of President (soon-to-be Prime Minister) Dmitry Medvedev and has even indicated a preference for working with him over his partner and puppet master, Vladimir Putin. Former President George W. Bush once claimed to have “a sense of [Putin’s] soul,” but Russia’s once-and-future president is no great fan of the United States and gets plenty of political mileage out of attacking U.S. foreign policy. Why, then, would Obama try to build a friendship with the only man with whom Putin must share the spotlight, a man with little real leverage in Russia’s elite politics? Even as Secretary of State Clinton is challenging Putin on human rights, her boss is using Dmitry to “transmit” messages to Vladimir.

The job of head of state is tough enough, and the various international crises of the past four years have done nothing to make it easier. Yes, world leaders can feel a kinship that comes with membership in an elite and demanding club, but some of their friendships aren’t doing them – or their constituents – any favors.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

PHOTO: A carnival float with papier-mâché depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L), at the traditional Rose Monday carnival parade in Düsseldorf, Germany, February 20, 2012. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

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“it was rare to find leaders willing to forge friendships with candidates across borders”

No doubt this is culturally embedded as a reaction to the past centuries reigning aristocracies who saw their cross-national families as a way to maintain power.

If the presidents of other countries can influence an election, how much of a mandate by the people is it really? Not much.

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