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Obama’s symbolic visit to Cuba is the exception. What’s the real history of presidents and international travel?

Historically, U.S. presidents and their secretaries of state did not travel.

- March 23, 2016

President Obama’s visit to Cuba this week was symbolic and splashy, and surely important. Recent research suggests that face-to-face diplomacy does influence what happens in international politics and policy.

But dramatic trips like this one are not diplomatic mainstays, as we explore in a new paper in International Studies Quarterly. The president and secretary of state travel primarily to support and build U.S. relationships rather than to break new ground or face off with adversaries.

Historically, U.S. presidents and their secretaries of state did not travel

For much of its history, U.S. foreign policy did not depend on breakthroughs arising from high-level, face-to-face diplomacy. How could it? Traveling abroad once involved a serious commitment of time and energy. At the end of the Civil War, eight or nine days were still needed to cross the Atlantic by ship. By the early 20th century, the trip’s time had only been cut by half. And leaving Washington for weeks at a time meant presidents and secretaries couldn’t quickly handle other pressing issues or political crises.

As a result, the U.S. president and Secretary of State didn’t really travel on official visits very often until after World War II. (You can find a list of all these visits at the State Department’s Office of the Historian).

Many U.S. presidents and secretaries simply did not travel, even to Canada, Latin America or the Caribbean. Theodore Roosevelt made only one overseas visit: To Panama, to inspect the building of the canal.

Of course, secretaries of state have always traveled, but even that was highly circumscribed, all the way through the turn of the 20th century. For instance, Secretary of State John Milton Hay served from 1898 to 1905, but he only traveled — and that, for vacation — at the very end of his term. His two successors, Elihu Root and Philander Chase Knox, only traveled in the Western Hemisphere, except when Knox visited Tokyo in 1912 for the Japanese emperor’s funeral.

When leaders did travel, they often remained abroad for unfathomable periods by contemporary standards. Knox’s trip to Japan kept him abroad for nearly two months. When Secretary of State Robert Lansing traveled with President Woodrow Wilson to France for the Paris Peace Conference in 1918, he stayed in France for nearly eight months; Wilson stayed in Europe for much of that time, as well.

Overall, with a few exceptions, there wasn’t much high-level personal diplomacy with Europe in the run up to either world war. In fact, it wasn’t until Franklin D. Roosevelt that we entered the modern era of frequent presidential travel. His early travels kept him in the Western Hemisphere. Once war started, he traveled to conferences in Cairo, Tehran and Yalta to meet key U.S. allies for strategy sessions. On the return from Cairo in 1943, he even stopped in Tunisia to confer with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Harry Truman joined his British and Russian counterparts in August 1945 at the Potsdam Conference, on the outskirts of Berlin, to decide the fate of post-war Europe and plan for victory against Japan. Upon his return, with the war soon to end, presidential travel dropped again. Although Truman launched the “state visit” in 1947, traveling to Mexico and Brazil, he was hardly a fixture on the foreign-travel circuit.

With the arrival of the jet age, Eisenhower changed that pattern. His secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, helped redefine the job, heading overseas often to countries in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and East and South Asia. The new demands of the U.S. global role — containing the spread of Communism — required a more mobile secretary.

Official visits became important largely because they are ordinary

Each trip the president takes gets a lot of attention. That’s part of the point. But we tend to focus on those trips’ “highlights” and ignore their less sensational sides.

To understand what presidents and secretaries are up to when they travel, we used a dataset coded from information compiled by the State Department that covers all trips by the president since the early 20th century and by the secretary of state since the civil war.

Most high-level visits, we found, tend to longstanding national interests. For instance, presidents and their secretaries alike regularly visit U.S. trade partners and countries with large military budgets.

Secretaries also travel regularly as a matter of “diplomatic routine.” They return to countries that they or their predecessors have already visited — especially countries that have been good diplomatic partners and thus remain internationally important. During crises, U.S. leaders often visit these countries rather than facing down enemies in their home nations.

Diplomatic travel doesn’t seem to differ by party; both Democratic and Republican presidents and their secretaries keep very similar travel calendars. Nor do the president or secretary tend to travel much for ideological or symbolic purposes — to reward countries for being democratic or for respecting human rights, or to visit countries that are less developed.

Of course, dramatic diplomatic visits grab our attention and stay in our memories. Who could forget the moments at the Brandenburg Gate when Kennedy declared  “Ich bin ein Berliner” or Reagan demanded that Gorbachev “tear down this wall”? Had those speeches been given at home, they could never have carried such symbolic power. And by going to Cuba himself, Obama sent a more powerful political message than had he given a speech from the White House.

But few presidential visits carry such symbolism or drama. Most face-to-face visits are “workhorse” trips — and important for that very reason. As Obama said on a 2014 trip to Asia, “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”