Presidents Abroad: The Politics of Personal Diplomacy

AuthorToby J. Rider,Ian Ostrander
Date01 December 2019
Published date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2019, Vol. 72(4) 835 –848
© 2018 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918809212
Foreign travel is now regarded as one of the most quint-
essentially presidential pursuits (Doherty 2009; Ellis
2008). President Nixon’s trip to China as well as Presidents
Kennedy and Reagan’s speeches in Berlin are iconic
examples of executive action on foreign policy. Traveling
abroad allows presidents to make use of their superior
foreign policy powers to engage in face-to-face diplo-
macy and negotiate international agreements. Foreign
trips also have domestic implications. Given the pomp
and ceremony intentionally surrounding these events,
some presidential scholars suggest that presidents receive
a boost in approval by traveling abroad (Darcy and
Richman 1988; Marra, Ostrom, and Simon 1990) and
because of this benefit, they may even seek out such
opportunities (Kernell 1997). For modern presidents,
foreign travel is both a cornerstone of their foreign pol-
icy agenda as well as a hallmark of the office.
Given the ubiquity of modern presidential travel, it is
perhaps surprising that prevailing norms once effectively
barred presidents from stepping foot beyond American
borders (Ellis 2008). Many scholars have noted the extent
to which the American presidency has evolved over time
from a more traditional and constitutionally bounded
office to one that has become more powerful over time
(Burke 2000; Howell 2003). The evolution of presidential
travel similarly describes a transition from a traditional to
modern presidency.
While quite a bit of attention has focused on the expan-
sion of executive office staff (Burke 2000),1 comparatively
little attention has been given to the institutional implica-
tions behind the creation and expansion of a bureaucratic
apparatus related to presidential travel (Burton 2006). The
ability to travel is now a presidential tool commonly used
for the advancement of a foreign policy agenda.
Despite the utility of foreign travel as a tool of diplo-
macy (Lebovic and Saunders 2016), presidents face many
practical and institutional barriers to going abroad. Most
important, presidential time and attention are finite
resources while foreign policy can be a significant drain
on both (Kelley and Pevehouse 2015; Lindsey and Hobbs
2015). Personal presidential diplomacy is a task that by
definition cannot be delegated. As such, foreign travel is
limited by the executive “bottleneck” (Lindsey and Hobbs
2015), or the maximum capacity of the officeholder to be
personally involved in the process. Traveling abroad,
thus, necessarily takes time away from domestic affairs
and when the opportunity costs of foreign travel are high,
presidents may be unable to afford trips abroad. While a
president’s personal participation in foreign policy devel-
opment has proven to be valuable (Lindsey and Hobbs
809212PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918809212Political Research QuarterlyOstrander and Rider
1Michigan State University, East Lansing, USA
2Texas Tech University, Lubbock, USA
Corresponding Author:
Ian Ostrander, Department of Political Science, Michigan State
University, South Kedzie Hall, 368 Farm Lane, Room 303,
East Lansing, MI 48824, USA.
Presidents Abroad: The
Politics of Personal Diplomacy
Ian Ostrander1 and Toby J. Rider2
A president’s most precious commodity is time, and nowhere is this scarcity more apparent than with respect to
international travel. Personal presidential involvement in diplomatic relations has proven to yield significant benefits,
and yet traveling to engage in face-to-face diplomacy is often prohibitively expensive for American executives in
time and attention. Given such restrictions, when and where do presidents choose to travel? We use a data set of
more than 750 presidential trips spanning more than one hundred countries and a century of history to investigate
the domestic and international factors influencing when, where, and for what reason presidents are likely to travel
abroad. We provide a detailed examination of presidential travel over time and find that domestic political contexts
influence presidential propensities to travel consistent with expectations based on allocating time and attention as
limited resources.
U.S. presidents, diplomacy, foreign policy, presidential agenda

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