President Biden revealed a major weakness in his foreign policy during his summit with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday. “I know we make foreign policy this great, great skill,” Biden told reporters after the meeting. In fact, he said, “all foreign policy is, is a logical extension of personal relationships.” He has been using variations of this line for years and boasts of having “met all the great world leaders in the last 35 years”.
Alas, its Rolodex is likely to be more impressive than its heritage. Good rapport with other world leaders is helpful, but successful leaders make decisions based on the national interest and not on bonhomie.
Personal diplomacy was more influential in the premodern era, when monarchs strengthened political alliances through marriage. These arrangements sometimes did not work as intended, but a leader’s family connections were a generally reliable guide to his country’s foreign policy. The rivalry between the Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties dominated European politics for centuries, and when the thrones became vacant, Europe went to war over whether the successor would be from Austria or France.
By the 19th century, monarchs had learned to prioritize the interests of their nation over those of their dynasty, and marriage diplomacy became increasingly ineffective. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert intended that their eldest daughter’s marriage in 1858 to Crown Prince Frederick would lead to an alliance with Prussia, but their hopes were dashed by Berlin’s determination to unify Germany and the London’s attempts to maintain a balance of power in Europe. In 1914, the rulers of Britain, Prussia and Russia were cousins, but they clashed in one of the most destructive wars in history.
World War I discredited the idea that a monarch’s family ties would trump other factors in international relations. But after the war, Democratic leaders mistakenly believed that their personal relationships could promote peace. In “Diplomacy”, Henry Kissinger pointed out that when French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand invited Germany to the League of Nations, he justified his decision by citing the kindness of his German counterpart, Gustav Stresemann. The deal secured the 1926 Nobel Peace Prize for Mr. Briand, but it did little to make France stronger or more secure, which the Germans demonstrated during World War II. During this war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked hard to woo Joseph Stalin, but Stalin always reneged on his commitments to grant self-determination to Eastern Europe.