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.