As President Obama struggles with a shrinking second-term domestic agenda, he - like many of his predecessors - will increasingly be pivoting toward foreign-policy goals.
Of course, foreign policy is not easy, and getting things done relies on building strong personal ties with other leaders, something that does not come easily to the president. Obama does, however, have one strong card to play. In two national elections, he has been best able to relate to the American people through his knowledge of popular culture. In dealing with foreign leaders, he should employ this same skill.
Obama would not be the first president to try this tactic. Dwight Eisenhower was a huge movie fan and used culture to get to know his colleagues better. For example, he watched westerns with Nikita Khrushchev, telling him that, "I know [westerns] don't have any substance to them and don't require any thought to appreciate, but they always have a lot of fancy tricks. Also, I like horses." Fortunately for Ike, Khrushchev had been trained to watch westerns, having watched them with Stalin, who would denounce them but then demand to watch them again the next day. As Khrushchev confessed, "I, too, have a weakness for this sort of film." "Good," Eisenhower replied. "We'll have some westerns and other movies."
Watching westerns did not work with everyone, however. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan found watching the 1958 western The Big Country with Eisenhower tedious. As Macmillan wrote in his diary, the film - "the great country or some such Name" - had "lasted three hours" and "was inconceivably banal."
A classic case of culture bringing leaders closer took place between George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David.
Bush noted in his memoir that he was a little unsure of what Blair, a "left-of-center Labour prime minister and a close friend of Bill Clinton's," might like to do after dinner. Bush suggested Meet the Parents, a lowbrow comedy with Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller, and the Blairs readily agreed. After this incident, Bush recalled, "Laura and I knew the Bushes and Blairs would get along." Blair ended up becoming a key ally in the war on terror, and the movie-watching incident helped break the ice between him and the president.
With these examples in mind, perhaps Obama should consider using pop culture to bond with his fellow leaders.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has been known to enjoy the sitcom Modern Family, which Obama enjoys with Michelle and his daughters. Obama has even said that "Michelle and the girls love them some Modern Family" at a fund-raiser hosted by the show's Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Just as Blair and Bush were of opposing parties, so are Obama and Cameron, and their shared interest could serve as a source of commonality.
Germany has recently been miffed about reports that the National Security Agency had spied on the cellphone conversations of Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel. She has revealed that her favorite film is the dark 1973 love story The Legend of Paul and Paula. I doubt that Obama has seen it, but his movie choices have tended toward the dark side, with The Godfather and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest among his all-time favorites.
The pop-culture approach is more difficult with Mideast leaders, but even here opportunities exist. Jordan's King Abdullah also likes Modern Family and is a Star Trek fan to boot, even making a cameo appearance on an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Obama is a long-standing Star Trek fan and told Nichelle Nichols - Uhuru on the original show - that he had a crush on her in his youth.
Unfortunately, the Atlantic interview in which Abdullah revealed these Western-style interests raised eyebrows at home and was seen as damaging to his occasionally uncertain reign. Obama should keep this in mind in dealing with leaders of other Muslim countries.
Facility with pop culture is one of Obama's top strengths, and a key tool that other presidents have used in geopolitical interactions. As Obama seeks foreign-policy accomplishments for his second term, he should bring his pop-culture skills to bear.