- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2009

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Saturday described a “dangerous drift” in relations between Russia and democratic nations, and echoed the Bush-era mantra that the U.S. must seek common ground with the Kremlin.

In his speech to world leaders during the Munich Security Conference in Germany, Mr. Biden also vowed that the Obama administration is “determined to set a new tone not only in Washington, but in America’s relations around the world.”

Mr. Biden’s speech to a few hundred leaders — including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and top U.S. military officials — was aimed in part at separating the new administration from the old and was highly anticipated because the economic crisis at home has prevented President Obama from either traveling abroad or delivering a major foreign policy address.

The vice president promised a new global approach from the eight years of President George W. Bush, whose strong-willed and sometimes unilateral foreign policy at many points angered friends and foes. The message was warmly received, according to a pool reporter traveling with the vice president.

Mr. Biden said the United States can defend itself without betraying its ideals — promising that the U.S. won’t use torture and that it will close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And he said the U.S. is willing to talk to Iran in an attempt to stop Tehran from gaining nuclear weapons.

“We will be willing to talk to Iran and to offer a very clear choice: continue down the current course and there will be continued pressure and isolation; abandon the illicit nuclear program and your support for terrorism and there will be meaningful incentives,” Mr. Biden said.

The Bush administration refused to speak to Tehran without a commitment from the Iranians to stop enriching uranium.

Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, was attending the conference, but it was unclear whether he attended Mr. Biden’s speech.

Mr. Biden also rejected the notion, held by many conservatives but never specifically voiced by the Bush administration, that there is a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Muslim world.

“We do see a shared struggle against extremism, and we’ll do everything in our collective power to help the forces of tolerance prevail,” Mr. Biden said, asking for help from allies in the war in Afghanistan, and in taking some of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

While Mr. Biden’s speech was intended to emphasize the distance between Mr. Obama and the Bush era, his approach to Russia resembled the previous administration’s.

“We will not agree with Russia on everything,” Mr. Biden said, “but the United States and Russia can disagree and still work together where our interests coincide. And they coincide in many places.”

Foreign-policy analyst Steven Sestanovich, who has served several stints at the White House and the State Department working on Russian policy and is now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said similar words were “spoken by Bush administration officials countless times in the past two to three years.”

Yet Mr. Biden said that “the last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our alliance.”

“It is time — to paraphrase President Obama — it’s time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia,” he said.

In the most hawkish comments of the 21-minute speech, Mr. Biden pushed back against the possibility of Russia dominating or intimidating its neighbors, many of which used to be Soviet republics or communist bloc countries.

“We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances,” he said.

These words, Mr. Sestanovich said, “implies that the new administration understands that Russian policy toward its neighbors is going to continue to be a problem for us.”

Mr. Biden said nothing about expanding NATO to include Georgia and Ukraine, which Russia blocked at the NATO summit last year, and was vague about the U.S. commitment to finishing the missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

“We will continue to develop missile defense to counter the growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven and it is cost-effective,” he said.

Mr. Biden met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko immediately after his speech. The vice president met with Mrs. Merkel and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk before the speech.

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