Does Biden’s Speech Portend Bush Era Foreign Policy? (10 Feb 2009)

Both the speech of vice-president Joe Biden of the United States before the annual security conference in Munich and the reactions it triggered were very disappointing. The speech had been anticipated with more than normal eagerness, and the euphoria of Biden’s European audience was palpable. But just at this time at which they had an opportunity to present the United States with a European approach to the deadlocks that have emerged in the world these past eight years, they remained remarkably passsive. By allowing the opportunity to slip by unused they have remained the vassals that George W. Bush has made of them.
Even the Russian vice-premier Sergei Ivanov spoke of a “very strong signal” for the restoration of the dialogue between the United States and Russia. But that can stand on its own. After all, there can be no doubt about the independent position of the Kremlin and its influence on what is happening in the world.
If we take the concept ‘change’ from Obama’s election campaign as point of reference, it applied in Munich mostly to the tone rather than content. Biden: “I come to Europe on behalf of an administration that is determined to set a new tone in America’s relations around the world.” It made the French Le Figaro conclude Les Etats-Unis veulent ‘ecouter’ le reste du monde and the German Süddeutsche Zeitung breathe more easily with an Ende der bleiernen Zeit (“the United States wants to listen to the rest of the world” and “The end of the black era”).

There is tone and there is content. They need not harmonize. As seen against the foreign policy of the Bush era and the election promises of Obama, Biden’s speech reminds one more of the former than the latter. The most telling example is Iran. Biden: “We will be willing to talk to Iran, and to offer a very clear choice: continue down your current course and there will be pressure and isolation; abandon the illicit nuclear program and your support for terrorism and there will be meaningful incentives”. Now, how can that be distinguished from the approach of the just departed Bush clan? And what is left of Obama’s offer of an open discussion on the highest level? It makes one think: could perhaps the campaign promise of aspiring candidate Hillary Clinton – now Secretary of State – that the United States could ‘totally obliterate’ Iran still be something to take seriously?
Saying that you are prepared to talk while making demands and uttering threats characterised Bush era tactics. Obama says he wants to talk and listen, but does so with conditions attached that cannot be accepted from the start by any discussion partner who takes himself seriously.
There was no counter-fire from the European side. To the contrary, both Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy were pleading for heavier sanctions against Iran if that country continues with its nuclear program. Preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power was, in Merkel’s contention, a litmus test for the international community. Sarkozy wanted to portray Russian readiness to support sanctions against Iran as a touchstone for the relationship with the Kremlin. With that the French president gave the fuse of the roadside bomb under European security in the hands of the ayatollahs. He probably sees this differently himself.

With regard to Israel Biden’s words were equally unpromising. The American vice-president merely repeated a known wish list: an equitable two-state solution. “We will work to achieve it, and to defeat the extremists who would perpetuate this conflict”. That a lasting solution also requires talking with Hamas has not yet registered with Washington, or for that matter with the European capitals, notwithstanding the proven incapacity of Israel to knock out that movement. For a while, during the recent assault on Gaza, Sarkozy created the impression that he was looking for an opening. He visited Cairo three times. But there was no sign of that anymore in Munich.
In the eyes of the American government European preparedness to support it in Afghanistan has become the touchstone of European loyalty. Washington is preparing a ‘surge’, a (perhaps temporary) strengthening of its combat troops over there, after the Iraqi example. As Biden sees it: “The result must be a comprehensive strategy for which we all take responsibility that brings together our civilian and military resources that prevents a terrorist save haven, that helps the Afghan people develop the capacity to secure their own future.”
In this matter European support comes with conditions. The German government in particular does not appear to have the slightest intention to cooperate by fighting against the Taliban in the southern part of the country. The Bundeswehr is in a relatively comfortable position in the North. (The ethnic factor of the minority position of the Pashtun, giving the Taliban no good foothold in that part of the country, does not deter German politicians from claiming that the German approach of winning hearts and minds is superior to that of the United States).
The relations with Russia and the position of NATO are, of course, central. There were expectations that the United States would take an important diplomatic move in the direction of the Kremlin by postponing the program for placing missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. Biden merely repeated the Bush era argument that those missiles must stop Iranian rockets, “provided the technology is proven and it is cost effective”. Everything will happen after consultation with NATO partners and with Russia, but there is no sign that the decision has been rescinded.
But, so warned Biden as if agreement about the missiles has already been reached, “we will not agree with Russia on everything. The US will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence.”
That last statement is a refrain from the Clinton era when Europe was deceived into understanding that expansion of NATO did not imply an expansion of the American sphere of influence. Perhaps we should not exclude the possibility that the Americans themselves also thought so at the time, shortly after the demise of the Iron Curtain.
But we know better now. If one country occupies another or assists it militarily, this means an expansion of the territory over which it has a say. That has been the case in earlier centuries, and it is not different today. Looked at from that perspective, Poland lies in the American and South Ossetia in the Russian sphere of influence.
But what is truly ambiguous about the emerging international relations as seen by the Obama people is the broader context in which Biden has placed them: “As America renews our emphasis on diplomacy, development, democracy and preserving our planet, we will ask our allies to rethink some of their own approaches – including their willingness to use force when all else fails”. Hmmm. That could have been said by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, or Rice.