The annual Munich Security Conference, which took place last weekend, usually yields one or two memorable speeches, which help set the international stage for the year or years to come. In 2007, Russian President Putin set a tone of confrontation by belligerently attacking the United States for its overbearing foreign policy, primarily in Iraq. And in the early days of the George W. Bush presidency, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made history - and many enemies in Europe - by referring to Germany and France as “old Europe.” (By implication, that made the East and Central Europeans “new Europe,” a role they have much relished.) What is said at Munich is often a good indicator of things to come.
This year, Vice President Joe Biden provided a highly memorable moment, delivering a particularly mealy-mouthed exposition of U.S. foreign policy, the most memorable phrase of which related to the U.S.-Russian relationship. About the country that only last summer invaded a sovereign nation in its neighborhood, Georgia, and which repeatedly threatens its neighbors with cutting off their energy supplies and other more aggressive measures, Mr. Biden said, “The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our Alliance - it is time to reset the button and revisit the many areas where we can and should work together.”
Now, Mr. Biden is famous for his - shall we say - colorful off the cuff remarks, but this was a prepared speech delivered on behalf of the new administration in Washington. So this bizarre statement was likely not a slip of the tongue, at least not entirely. Mr. Biden probably did not mean “reset the button,” which makes little sense, but “hit the reset button,” which would mean wiping the slate clean in computereese. Doing so would in effect grant Russia its ill-gotten gains in Georgia. He also invited Russia to integrate more closely into NATO structures. In his press conference Monday night, President Obama himself invited Russia to work with the United States to pressure Iran to come to the negotiating table, a statement that would be funny were it not so ill-informed.
Equally troubling in Mr. Biden’s speech was the absence of commitment to missile defense in Europe, the so-called “third site” for which a radar is to be installed in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptors in Poland. It appears that the Obama administration is ready to do a deal with the Russian government on nuclear arms reduction, possibly in exchange for abandoning U.S. missile defense, all of which is deeply troubling.
In all, Mr. Biden spoke as though peace had broken out, a favorite illusion of Europeans. Russian aggressiveness was swept under the rug. Iran was offered an out-stretched hand to enter into negotiations over their nuclear program in a new spirit of “mutual respect” that would offer the Iranian mullahs incentives whenever they are ready to talk about giving up their nuclear weapons. Well, now that sweetness and light have broken out, the Iranian regime will surely put away their nuclear plans, right?
And despite the fact that the Obama administration is talking tough on Afghanistan, which Mr. Biden called its top foreign policy issue, the global war on terror does seem to be over from the U.S. perspective. The struggle against Islamist radicals and terrorists is no longer central to U.S. foreign policy. Instead Mr. Biden invited U.S. allies in Europe and the Muslim world to work with the United States against “a small number of extremists.” This is a radical departure from the monumental efforts made by the Bush administration to keep Americans safe from terrorist attacks, and will no doubt be greeted joyfully in Al Qaeda circles.
As a matter of fact, Mr. Biden effectively offered to hit the reset button of U.S. foreign policy on a great range of international issues. In many respects, the speech signaled a complete break with the Bush era and did so to the great delight of the European audience. Things had gotten off to a rocky start between European leaders and the Obama administration as the “buy America” provisions of the trillion dollar economic stimulus package affronted Europeans as a violation of international trade agreements. Mr. Biden’s mandate was to get the Europeans to simmer down, and by the end of his platitudinous oration, he had them eating out of his hand. Unfortunately.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.