The President as Diplomat in Chief

Social Sciences7 MIN READ

Tizoc Chavez’s new book explores why American presidents dedicate more time to directly engaging with their foreign counterparts

Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Tizoc Victor Chavez
By Kardelen Koldas ’15Photography by Caitlin Penna
February 21, 2022

Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Tizoc Victor Chavez’s new book, The Diplomatic Presidency: American Foreign Policy from FDR to George H. W. Bush (University Press of Kansas, 2022), examines why American presidents increasingly made personal diplomacy with their foreign counterparts a key part of their presidency. We saw an example of this recently when President Joe Biden arranged a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation in Ukraine.

“I was the kid who had all the presidents memorized by the time I was in fifth grade,” said Chavez, who started this book project as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. Now at Colby, he’s teaching a course called Diplomat in Chief: Presidential Leadership on the Global Stage, introducing students to the book’s subject. 

Chavez sat down with Staff Writer Kardelen Koldas ’15 to talk about his new book for Presidents’ Day.

Book cover

Your book explores presidents’ personal diplomacy. What do you mean by personal diplomacy? How does it work?

Personal diplomacy is when presidents interact with foreign leaders. That can be done in a variety of ways—face-to-face, phone calls, letters. But there’s a hierarchy. Face-to-face interactions are the ultimate form of personal diplomacy, but the other methods are also important and help reinforce the relationship-building done in person. Some critics say presidents have a team of advisors and question how personal it is. It’s a valid point, but I’d say anytime a president is involved in a communication—signing a letter, making a phone call—it’s their power and authority that’s at play. And so it’s a personal endeavor. It’s also important to remember that this is a practice of the presidency that all presidents, regardless of their partisan affiliation, leadership style, or personality, use as a tool to conduct foreign policy.

This one-to-one diplomacy wasn’t initially part of the president’s job description. How did it become so integral to their work?

You have some people early on, like Woodrow Wilson or Theodore Roosevelt, who were interested in trying to engage their foreign counterparts and travel abroad. But for a variety of reasons, such as tradition and technological limitation, that really didn’t happen. In the second half of the 20th century, there were advances in communication and transportation, which allowed what would have been a multi-week trip at sea to be a few-hour plane ride. You no longer necessarily had to just send letters; you could make a phone call. And now, even video conferencing. So the technological aspect plays a role to facilitate it.

With that technological leap, why did presidents engage with personal diplomacy more and more? What were the incentives? 

Large trends developed both domestically and internationally that made presidents as a group—and the presidency as an institution—engage in this behavior. The first was changes in the international environment after the Second World War. With the onset of the Cold War, global crises became a way of life, and the threat of nuclear power was ever-present. And as the leader of the dominant superpower, American presidents became increasingly involved personally to manage those crises and make sure things didn’t potentially spin out of control. Even if there was no guarantee that their involvement would help, they felt like they had to try.

Another thing was that it helped with their international stature and looked good domestically. When the president met with the leader of a major country, and often even a smaller one, newspaper and television coverage was immense. So that helped presidents to project a certain image, like that of a statesman and a world leader, and to boost their approval rating. And the last trend was presidents’ desire for control, which led them to increasingly centralize policy creation and execution. Personal diplomacy gave presidents the opportunity to be a little bit more hands-on to control and dictate things more so than if they relied on a large bureaucracy, like the Department of State, which they might not necessarily trust or thought it moved too slow.

What is the value for the country in having American presidents conduct this sort of diplomacy?

What distinguishes the president’s personal diplomacy is just the position they hold in the international system. They’re both chief of state and head of government, so when leaders interact at the top, they can make decisions much more quickly. Maybe something has been stalled at lower levels and leaders can get together and potentially hash that out in a few hours. It also allows better signaling of a policy for the public. Most people, both Americans and other audiences, might not understand the intricacies of international affairs, but they can understand leaders getting together, shaking hands, and having a friendly interaction. And lastly, there are intangible benefits, such as better understanding, empathy, and trust that might develop between leaders.

Can you give an example where personal diplomacy made a real difference in U.S. foreign policy?

A really good example would be the Camp David Accords with Jimmy Carter. He was able to negotiate peace between former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. That’s probably one of the greatest, most intense bursts of presidential personal diplomacy because they spent 13 days together at Camp David. Begin and Sadat didn’t like each other, and Carter really had to manage this, going back and forth between the two leaders, trying to bridge the differences.

Another good example would be Ronald Reagan’s interactions with Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union, at the end of the Cold War. Before that, Reagan was known as this really hard-line, anti-communist. But both men were able to use their interactions to form a personal relationship that helped ease Cold War tensions and pave a path toward its eventual end. That’s a good example of two leaders who engaged with each other and built a rapport. They weren’t necessarily friends, but they had a good working relationship and were able to hash things out, trust each other enough to make progress on an arms control agreement many thought impossible at the start of Reagan’s presidency.

You write that leader-to-leader interactions were a double-edged sword. What were some of the challenges that the presidents’ personal diplomacy posed? Any examples for that?

The one that comes to mind would be John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, former leader of the Soviet Union, when they met in 1961 in Vienna. Again, the theory would be they’d get to know one another and maybe see the humanity of each other, but they just kind of bickered about ideological points and created a lot of tension. Khrushchev thought he could bully Kennedy because he was younger and coming off of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. I mean, after that day, JFK told his advisors he got the hell beat out of him, so it was a rough day for him.

Have you uncovered any surprising aspects of this personal diplomacy?

There’s this interesting thing that in almost every meeting, presidents often try to soothe or comfort their foreign counterparts to make them feel that America is a reliable partner and that they themselves are a reliable partner as the president. In the book, I say presidents have acted as a “counselor”—though I’m sure foreign leaders wouldn’t like that characterization. But presidents believed this was an important role, especially during the Cold War when world leaders wondered: Will the United States come to our defense if the Soviets invaded or attacked? Almost every memo I looked at talked about this aspect reminding presidents to reassure a foreign leader of American support and goodwill. You can even see that today. When President Biden talks to the Ukrainian president right now, I’m pretty sure he’s trying to make him feel the United States supports him and will stand with Ukraine if Russia invades.