Can Barbecue Diplomacy Shape World History?

"I think the Crawford ranch is more exclusive than Camp David," says Bedard. "Camp David is owned by the government, it's still a government property. Crawford is like he's inviting you to his home. It's more than just an official visit, it's like a declaration that these guys are friends."

A Matter of Style

But sometimes, the personal and cultural styles of heads of state can be embarrassingly ill-matched. Reporters recount a walk around the ranch that Putin and Bush made in the pouring rain with their wives while the first ladies struggled along in their high-heel shoes.

During the queen's 1983 visit to Reagan's California ranch, a horse-riding expedition had to be put off when rain turned the ranch into a mud pile, forcing the British monarch to stay indoors and dine on a Mexican meal of refried beans she clearly did not relish.

And back in the Cold War days, Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev famously dragged then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger on a boar hunting expedition that repelled the animal-loving former Harvard professor.

But that disastrous hunting trip did not stop history from taking its course. Kissinger and his boss, President Nixon, did nevertheless succeed in effecting a d├ętente with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

In an age when the international community is no longer split into two ideologically opposed camps, the potential to form and strengthen alliances through personal rapport appears to have increased.

"The trend seems to be less U.S. dependency on using existing institutions than developing ad hoc coalitions for key issues," says Lyman. "I think we're going to see a lot of coalitions on X, Y and Z problems rather than the U.S. being beholden to existing institutions."

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