- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2009

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Saturday described a “dangerous drift” in relations between Russia and democratic nations — and laid out the Obama administration’s prescription for fixing it — during an address to world leaders at a meeting in Munich.

Mr. Biden’s speech was highly anticipated because President Obama has not yet traveled abroad or delivered a major foreign policy address as he deals with the economic crisis at home.

The vice president’s address to a few hundred leaders — including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and top U.S. military officials — was the first chance for many in the world to see and hear how the new American government will deal with the world.

Mr. Biden delivered a wide-ranging speech that promised a new global approach from the eight years of President Bush, whose strong-willed and sometimes unilateral foreign policy at many points angered friends and foes alike.

The speech was warmly received, according to a pool reporter traveling with the vice president.

Mr. Biden vowed that the Obama administration is “determined to set a new tone not only in Washington, but in America’s relations around the world.”

The vice president promised that America can defend itself without betraying its ideals — promising that the U.S. won’t torture and that it will close the prison in Guantanamo Bay — and that the U.S. will talk to Iran in an attempt to stop Tehran from gaining nuclear weapons.

Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, is attending the conference. But the pool reporter said that it was unclear if Mr. Larijani attended the speech.

And Mr. Biden 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.

He asked for help from allies in the war in Afghanistan, and in taking some of the detainees at Guantanamo.

“America needs the world, just as I believe the world needs America.”

Yet while Mr. Biden’s speech was intended to emphasize the distance between Mr. Obama and the Bush era, his approach to Russia in particular sounded remarkably similar to 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.”

That was essentially Mr. Bush’s line, even when the Kremlin invaded the country of Georgia last summer.

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.

As for the two breakaway regions in northern Georgia on the Russian border — which were at the center of the conflict last August — Mr. Biden said that is one area where the Obama administration will continue to oppose the Kremlin.

“The United States will not, will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states,” he said.

And in the most hawkish comments of the 21-minute speech, Mr. Biden pushed back against the possibility of Russia dominating or intimidating countries on or near its borders, 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.

Mr. Biden said nothing about expanding NATO to include former Soviet blocs 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.

“I do believe that we will continue our strategic cooperation, which we’ve had for many years now, and I believe it will get even stronger,” Mr. Biden said during the brief moments that reporters were allowed into the room during the meeting.

The vice president met with Mrs. Merkel and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk prior to the speech.

Another similarity to Mr. Bush in the vice president’s speech, if dissimilarly expressed, was Mr. Biden’s wish that international institutions such as NATO and the United Nations be taken seriously by enforcing rules and resolutions.

“The alliances, treaties and international organizations we build must be credible and they must be effective,” Mr. Biden said. “That requires a common commitment not only to listen and live by the rules, but to enforce the rules when they are, in fact, clearly violated.”

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