WASHINGTON — Mounting crises in Ukraine and the Middle East have driven a surge in President Obama's telephone diplomacy, as the president has made more calls in July to world leaders than in all but one month of his presidency, according to White House records analyzed by USA TODAY.
The calls, analyzed from almost 1,100 publicly disclosed records since 2009, show how Obama has relied heavily on European leaders, particularly British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to help navigate trouble spots. And they provide a glimpse into how the president conducts diplomacy and who his most trusted allies are.
Records also show how some nations rise and fall in importance and the evolving division of labor between Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden, whose phone calls to foreign leaders have also spiked this year. While Obama speaks most often with the leaders of the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, France and Russia, Biden's portfolio includes Iraq, Ukraine and — increasingly — Turkey.
Obama has made 28 calls in July, surpassing the 25 he made in March during the Crimean crisis. The only time Obama talked to more world leaders by phone was in November 2012, when he was returning a round of congratulatory messages after his re-election.
Monday, Obama spoke to European leaders on a video call to firm up a new round of sanctions against Russia. That call was a milestone in Obama's telephone diplomacy: the 500th call to world leaders in his presidency.
Those counts are based on publicly released "readouts," or summaries, of presidential calls. The White House would not say how many calls the president makes that are not disclosed.
BASIC TOOL OF DIPLOMACY
A presidential phone call is one of the most basic tools of diplomacy any White House has — and one of its most flexible. Even as the White House faced questions about Obama attending 12 fundraisers and political events this month, spokesman Josh Earnest said the president would be "paying all of the necessary attention to make sure that American interests are represented."
"Again, he can do that through phone calls," Earnest said last week. "That will be the urgent priority."
Critics of Obama's conduct of foreign policy say those non-urgent phone calls are all too rare, and Obama hasn't used the phone to effectively build relationships.
"When the chips are down and I need help, I'm going to call my friends. The quality of my response may depend on when there wasn't a crisis and did I call them," said Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke University and a national security staffer who sat in on phone calls in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. "To me, that's the big failure of President Obama."
Feaver said Obama has "downgraded" some key relationships, leaving them to Biden or the State Department. Bush had weekly video teleconferences with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but Obama has largely delegated those conversations to Biden.
The White House has disclosed four calls that Obama has made to Iraq during his presidency. Biden has made 64, partly because the vice president usually checks in with three different sectarian leaders in each round of calls: al-Maliki, Speaker of the Council of Representatives Salim al-Jabouri and Kurdish Regional President Masoud Barzani.
Also revealing are the relatively few calls to the Pacific Rim. Despite the Obama administration's "Asia pivot" strategy, Obama has made half as many phone calls to Japan (14) and South Korea (12) as he has to Germany (33) and France (30). He's made seven calls to the Chinese president.
Monday's call was with four leaders the White House has on speed dial: Cameron of Britain, Merkel of Germany, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said the NATO allies "agreed on the importance of coordinated sanctions measures on Russia" and "the need for an immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire" in Gaza. They also discussed Iraq and Libya. Blinken said that by his count, the call was the 50th Obama has had on the Ukraine crisis since it began.
That call was unusual in that it was a videoconference call involving five leaders at once. (Merkel joined by telephone.) The leader-to-leader telephone call — albeit with several top aides in the room and listening in — is still the primary mode of presidential diplomacy in 2014. Its immediacy and ease of use are its greatest advantages — but telephone diplomacy can have pitfalls.
"I don't want to knock Alexander Graham Bell for inventing the telephone, but as a diplomatic historian, I have to tell you, it creates lots and lots and lots of difficulties," said Bulent Aliriza of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank.
There's a tendency for leaders on both sides to overestimate what they can accomplish in a short phone call, Aliriza said. "Ultimately, international relations is about things that are done and not things that are said on the phone," he said. "It's a substitute for real diplomacy or real diplomatic interaction."
BIDEN CALLS ERDOGAN
When something gets lost in the translation or the leaders have different understandings of what was said, phone calls can actually be counterproductive.
Case in point: Obama's relationship with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In an interview in 2012 with Time Magazine, Obama cited Erdogan — along with Merkel, Cameron and former leaders Manmohan Singh of India and Lee Myung Bak of South Korea — among his closest international friendships. At the time, Turkey ranked just below the United Kingdom in the number of presidential phone calls.
That was before a series of three increasingly awkward phone calls in which Obama and Erdogan had very different versions of what they talked about. After their last call on Feb. 19, Erdogan said Obama seemed receptive to extraditing Fethullah Gulen, a religious leader and political opponent who lives in Pennsylvania. The White House has denied Erdogan's account of the phone call.
Last week, Erdogan said his communication with Obama had completely broken down.
"In the past, I was calling him directly. But because I can't get the expected results on Syria, our foreign ministers are now talking to each other. And I have talked to Biden. He calls me; I call him. I expect justice in this process. I couldn't imagine such a thing from those who are not endeavoring for justice," Erdogan said in a televised interview July 21, according to a translation by the Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman.
Biden has spoken with Erdogan four times in recent weeks.
The White House declined to comment about Obama's telephone diplomacy but did provide a written statement in response to Erdogan's complaint.
"The United States and Turkey have a strong relationship, both bilaterally and as NATO allies. We are in ongoing communication with Turkish officials at many levels," said Laura Lucas, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. She said the two countries engage in "regular senior-level calls and meetings."