I was in Madrid for our major conference on U.S.-Spain-Latin American relations the day that the White House announced President Obama was going to skip the U.S.-EU Summit scheduled for May, and it went over like a lead balloon. Subsequently, the Financial Times (editorial of February 3), Anne Appelbaum (op-ed in the Washington Post) and others opined that it was in fact the right decision. Their reasons: Europe still doesn’t have its act together, Europeans have generally been churlish in support of U.S. priorities in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and, in fact, Europe still lacks a structure whereby the U.S. president can confidently engage its “leadership.” Or, as Henry Kissinger famously quipped, when you want to talk to Europe, whom do you call? So the lack of White House interest in the May summit was perhaps unsurprising, and was less of a snub than some have portrayed it.
More surprising, however, was the apparent lack of interest of the White House in meeting with Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero when he was in Washington last week for the annual Prayer Breakfast. It’s a tried and true tactic of foreign leaders to come to Washington for other activities, and then attempt an unscheduled courtesy call on the U.S. leader—I’ve seen it myself from both in and outside government, and sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, and the risk is all the foreign leader’s. If it always worked, the U.S. president would face a constant stream of global leaders, some invited, many not, and as short-sighted as it may seem, it’s simply impossible to meet with anyone who shows up.
Having said that, this was different. Not only had the news just been delivered in Madrid about the May Summit, but the Spanish prime minister currently holds the EU presidency. A short meeting at the White House would have shown symbolic U.S. interest, while softening the blow regarding the Summit. On a bilateral basis, the United States has made an effort to court the Zapatero government and build relations in the wake of the frosty U.S.-Spain relationship during the Bush years, even as the Spanish economy is mired and faces attack from currency speculators. The government is looking for support. Not meeting with the Spanish leader was a missed opportunity at best to build the relationship further; it’s unclear why an important relationship that has been invested in so heavily over the past year did not merit this additional, relatively easy step.
I’m sure there are reasons. There always are. But this is one time when it probably would have made better sense to bring Prime Minister Zapatero back to the White House from the breakfast in the presidential motorcade and give him 20 minutes and a photo in the Oval Office. Symbolism matters in international diplomacy. This one should have been an easy hit.
*Eric Farnsworth is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. He is Vice President of the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.