The Debate

The U.S. Drops the Ball on First Lady Diplomacy

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The Debate

The U.S. Drops the Ball on First Lady Diplomacy

Michelle Obama’s absence at the Xi-Obama summit is perplexing… and troubling.

Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama will begin two informal days of talks at Sunnylands in California later today, which both sides have been framing as a way to recalibrate an increasingly tense bilateral relationship and build a new type of great power relationship largely through strengthening personal ties between their leaders.

In other words, the goals of the summit and the intended ways to achieve them are tailor made for first lady diplomacy. And what a dynamic duo Peng Liyuan and Michelle Obama make, both of whom made Forbes list of the 100 most powerful women in the world. Similarly, Peng and Obama are both beloved (and fashion icons) in their countries, and stars everywhere they go. By launching a new joint initiative, or merely appearing together, they could be the face of a more positive U.S.-China relationship.  

It was therefore surprising to learn from the New York Times earlier this week that Michelle Obama would not be accompanying President Obama to California this weekend. As the NYT reported, citing the first lady's office, “Michelle Obama plans to remain in Washington with their daughters, who finish the school year this week.”

In the one sense, this is more than understandable. For those among us who are not leaders of a country or their spouse, it’s impossible to grasp the difficulty of having to balance these responsibilities with those of being a parent. Except in extreme circumstances, priority must be given to the latter. This author, for one, has always greatly admired Mrs. Obama's commitment to be "Mom-in-chief" first, in order to give her daughters as normal an upbringing as possible, and keeping them out of the spotlight.

But this doesn’t even appear to be one of the cases where the first lady’s responsibilities to her children and her country are at odds. Although Mrs. Obama’s office said the daughters are finishing the school year this week, another way to phrase this is that the first children are beginning summer vacation this weekend. In fact, according to their academic calendar, they finished their last day of school on Thursday.

In other words, Mrs. Obama wouldn’t even have to leave the first children at home. What teenagers wouldn't want to begin their summer vacation with a trip to sunny California?  

More generally, the incident underscores that the U.S. still does not place the necessarily level of importance on its relationship with China. One could hardly imagine a U.S. summit with the Soviet Union in which important details like that America’s first lady wouldn’t be available to attend despite the fact that the spouse of the Soviet leader would be traveling with her husband. Indeed, intense planning often went into the first ladies’ roles during these summits.

If anything, more attention should be given to first lady diplomacy with China today for at least three reasons. First, because the intense global media makes appearances even more important than they were in the past. Second, because of Peng’s rare star quality and the pride so many Chinese take in this. Third, as a country undergoing a “rejuvenation” after a century of humiliation, China is extremely attentive to perceived slights.

For all these reasons, Mrs. Obama’s absence could have an oversized impact. As Remin University Professor Zhang Ming put it, “The Chinese public will actually be quite unhappy, because they are quite proud of their first lady's role in diplomacy. If Michelle doesn't go, it will make it difficult for our first lady to perform." 

Ultimately, the most important point is that the U.S. and China will have a difficult time trying to reboot relations. Whereas the first ladies joint presence could have helped reset relations, now it risks becoming an unnecessary distraction.