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What Did Biden Really Say In Munich?

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told his Munich audience many things, but was any of it new?
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told his Munich audience many things, but was any of it new?
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden came to Munich to explain what the new U.S. administration intends to do in just about every corner of the world over the next four years.

But it seems some of the message has become garbled as different listeners heard different things.

That's because of the sheer scope of the messages, the additional information that leaked from Biden's bilateral meetings, and the spin that some of the listeners deliberately put on what they heard.

In Germany, observers were hedging their bets after the conference.

"Is there really anything really new in what is coming out of Washington?" the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" asked on February 9, observing that unilateralism remains an option and military force topmost in the U.S. "toolbox."

Another German newspaper, "Die Zeit," noted that alliances are still "not an end in itself" for Washington.

In Russia, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov described his meeting with Biden as "very positive," and that there had been a "strong signal" that Washington wants to resume dialogue.

But any interpretation of Biden's speech is best advised to err on the side of caution.

The vice president made it clear that the basic premises of U.S. foreign policy have not changed. Washington is, however, receptive to advice when it comes to tweaking the policies that issue from them. Sounding out others, rather than anything else, appears to have been Biden's main aim.

The two key relationships of any present-day U.S. administration are those with allies and with Russia. The allies -- above all Germany and France-- will have concluded that the world is "multipolar" wherever focused U.S. attention does not turn it unipolar. And that is liable to seem an advance over the vision of George W. Bush.

A Russian 'Reset'

To Russia, Biden held out the promise of a "reset." But what is actually on offer looks more like a time-out. The worst problems are on hold in any case -- NATO enlargement has been blocked by Germany and France, missile-defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic will take years to complete.

Washington appears keen to take the chance and unfreeze relations without giving any hostages to the future. The veteran U.S. diplomat Henry Kissinger may have spoken not just for himself in telling the Munich audience that Russia must be seen "not as a permanent threat, but as a potential partner."

President Barack Obama's interest in reviving arms-control talks should help. Russia wants to be recognized as a major global player and, given time, this is something that could be exploited. For example, at a time of economic constriction, institutionalized eye-level contact with the United States could be a powerful incentive.

It is unlikely that Moscow will view this incentive as an alternative to having a sphere of influence -- something that Biden said the United States will not accept. The impending closure of the U.S. air base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, however, looks less a challenge to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and more an assertion of regional dominance.

Biden could be seen as supporting the latter interpretation. Appealing to "shared interests" with Russia, he singled out Afghanistan. Russia has made it clear it does not want NATO to fail in Afghanistan, fearing for Central Asia and its own southern flank.

Afghanistan could also point the way to a revival of NATO-Russia cooperation, frozen over Georgia. Officials in Brussels say the suspended NATO-Russia Council could resume meeting formally as soon as March, when NATO foreign ministers gather in Brussels. Afghanistan would be top of the agenda. In Munich, Ivanov said Russia is ready to assist NATO there "with everything but troops."

Allies' Expectations

All of this is broadly in line with the expectations of Washington's allies in Europe -- although more so in some cases than others.

France appears to fear being sidelined, despite being set to rejoin NATO's military command structure in April. Arms-control talks would not afford Paris much access, and within NATO the United States will inevitably dominate. This could be why, among EU leaders, President Nicolas Sarkozy is the keenest supporter of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's proposed new "security architecture."

Germany's response, on the other hand, tracks U.S. expectations relatively closely. Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke at Munich of the need to exercise "networked power" in Afghanistan. This dovetails neatly with U.S. intentions to build up troop levels in the expectation the EU assumes a greater responsibility for the country's nonmilitary development.

Germany is often accused of lacking a clear and comprehensive foreign-policy strategy. But Berlin's instinctive striving for geopolitical balance often amounts to the same thing. Russia is always a factor in Berlin's calculations and a new U.S.-Russian disarmament deal would be in Germany's natural interests.

Germany is also closer to Washington than Paris on Iran. Although it prefers a diplomatic solution to Tehran's nuclear standoff, Merkel restated a fundamental German policy postulate at Munich when she said a nuclear-armed Iran is "unacceptable." This is closely linked to Germany's commitment to Israel's security, which is far stronger than that of Paris.

It does not therefore seem wholly improbable that part of the Biden mission in Europe -- and possibly President Obama's strategy -- is to explore the space between Berlin and Paris.

In an interview with the daily "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" on February 9, U.S. national security adviser James Jones invited allies to discuss a "new vision for NATO." This will appeal to both Paris and Berlin -- as will Jones's endorsement of their view that the alliance "must make explicit that future members must fulfill clear standards, before we admit them."

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