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Munich Through The (Non-American) Looking Glass

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speak to reporters in Munich.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speak to reporters in Munich.
MUNICH -- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who delivered the first major foreign-policy speech of President Barack Obama's new administration, was far and away the greatest attraction at this year's 45th Munich Security Conference.

Leaders of a number of European nations, including Germany and France, and top decision makers from Russia and Iran, among others, had gathered in anticipation of perhaps the most fundamental global policy shift since the end of the Cold War.

Most will leave Munich disappointed.

The United States may recognize the existence of a multiplicity of views, but it is not prepared to subject itself to the strictures of a multipolar world.

With what could almost be described as nonchalance, Biden brushed aside French President Nicolas Sarkozy's musings that power in today's world has become "relativized" by virtue of the rise of "other great powers."

If the United States is subject to encumbrances by "other forces," Biden said, these are phenomena like disease, poverty, and terrorism -- not other governments.

Rebuff To France, Germany

At other times, the hard steel of Biden's message to Europe was hidden -- and possibly reinforced -- by patronizing humor.

Welcoming France back into NATO's military structures, Biden also explained an earlier comment by Sarkozy that he had seen the vice president's speech in advance.

Russia is, in terms of European interests, a part of Europe and [our] relationship is therefore of an extraordinary importance.
"As we embark on this renewal project, as we like to think of it, the United States and other allies would warmly welcome -- and we do warmly welcome -- the decision by France to fully cooperate in NATO's structures," Biden said. "That's the main reason [Sarkozy] got our speech. You were supposed to say nicer things about me when you got the speech, Mr. President. That's a joke."

Biden's speech was at one level clearly intended as a rebuff to France and Germany, whose leaders in recent months have launched a concerted, high-profile drive to wrench back from Washington some of the control over Europe's security policy.

The Franco-German alliance will be symbolically reaffirmed at NATO's 60th anniversary summit in early April, hosted jointly by the German town of Kehl and the French city of Strasbourg.

While the general thrust of the French and German common cause was not in doubt at Munich, a number of intriguing divergences became evident in the course of the event.

Both countries want to strengthen the "European pillar" in NATO.

Neither wants to admit Ukraine or Georgia into the alliance.

Both feel a new accommodation needs to be reached with Russia reflecting Moscow's perceived power and ambition.

'Extraordinary Importance'

For Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, this is a common-sense proposition grounded in geopolitical reality -- Russia's cooperation is essential for the stability of Europe and the world.

"Russia is, of course, an integral part of the arms control efforts [with] the United States of America...Apart from this, at the same time, Russia is, in terms of European interests, a part of Europe and [our] relationship is therefore of an extraordinary importance," Merkel said.

Germany is willing to consider Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's proposed new European "security architecture," Merkel said, but added that Europe's interests are best served by binding Russia to existing security institutions and mechanisms -- such as the European Union, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani in Munich
For Sarkozy, Russia's main worth resides in the fact that its rise -- just like that of "other great powers" such as China and India -- strengthens the argument for multipolarity and gives France a leg up in its quest to stand at eye level with the United States.

At the Munich conference, Sarkozy himself observed that France's geographical distance from Russia and the absence of real need for its gas mean his advocacy of Europe's accommodation of Russian ambition is not inspired by "weakness, fear, or interest." Recognizing Russia's ambition just makes sense.

The president sought to bolster his case further by arguing that Russia does not constitute a threat to its allied neighbors.

"I do not believe that today's Russia is a military threat to either the EU or NATO," he said.

History shows, Sarkozy went on to say, that a country beset by the "fantastic challenges" affecting Russia -- chief among them demographic decline -- is not prone to military aggression against its neighbors.

Mindless Confrontation

True, the French president conceded, "some member states" fear Russia, and Russia itself has a "historical fear of encirclement." But in today's world, he said, with all its problems, and given Europe's wealth and Russia's natural resources, a confrontation with Moscow would be mindless.

There was variance, too, in the French and German views of the rationale and benefits of their trans-Atlantic alliances with the United States.

Sarkozy described the relationship as ideally one between allies, predicated on respect for each others' values and lacking in "imposition." He repeatedly said French "independence" and its "interests" would ultimately determine his stance.

Merkel reversed that logic, saying unequivocally that Germany's alliance with the United States and its membership in NATO are first principles that takes precedence over all other considerations.

"NATO is the central anchor of the trans-Atlantic alliance, to which we commit our shared interests on the basis of our shared values and which guides our necessary action," she said. "Article 5 -- the [mutual] assistance clause [of the NATO treaty] -- remains the basis of the alliance, and the trans-Atlantic axis is the groundwork of our security architecture."

The preoccupation, however tacit, on the part of most participants at Munich with the theme of multipolarity meant that relatively little was seen of the larger countries lacking in ambition, notably Britain, or those lacking consequence -- notably the Eastern European allies.

If the Munich event does prefigure the shape of things to come, then the smaller powers' main problem in a multipolar world will be access. The "poles" tend to hog the limelight and have little time or patience for the views of the smaller fry.

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk was a participant in the event's flagship debate but will be remembered mostly as being the butt of Sarkozy's informal digs -- among them, "Donald, you did not talk enough about the values. But they are the key, the values."

("Values," Sarkozy argued, somewhat opaquely, represent a member state's -- or a candidate country's -- capacity to contribute to the common good of the EU or NATO, including security, without which the organizations would be "destroyed.")

Waiting Patiently

Russia chose to make its contribution early in the event, on February 6.

Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov
Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov spoke on arms control and tried to create the impression that Moscow is patiently waiting for Washington to emerge from a long, self-imposed period of irrational abandon.

Ivanov did drop an interesting hint on missile defense, however -- suggesting Russia's global hand may be weakening -- when he said that even if the United States were to go ahead with building missile-defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, nothing would be irretrievably lost.

The installations, Ivanov said, would take many years to complete -- giving the two sides more time to hash out a deal.

With some symmetry, Biden, a day later, appeared to toughen the U.S. position on the issue, saying it would make its own decision first and consult Moscow later.

Finally, Iran was represented by the speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani. Larijani raised the spirits of some of his U.S. and European listeners with his relatively nonbelligerent tone, asking for the United States to give his country a "chess game, not a boxing match."

But he did also say Washington must leave the region and "indigenize" all security arrangements there.

RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas has covered the European Union and NATO for many years. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.