More than any other official, Vice President Biden has helped define the Obama administration approach to Europe. While the President has made an unprecedented three trips to Europe during his first six months in office (including heavy lifts in Turkey and Russia), his visits were built around obligatory summits more often focused on global issues (G8, G20) or symbolic stops (WWII sites in France and Germany). Secretary Clinton has visited the continent twice, with a third trip was scrubbed after she injured her arm.
Biden darted across the Atlantic four times in the first six months of the administration. On his trips, he has made major policy announcements — he proclaimed the Russia reset policy in Munich and previewed the administration’s AFPAK review at NATO — and tackled the toughest issue on the continent: how to advance a Europe whole and free that includes the Balkans and Europe’s East. He has advanced a vision for Europe that has long enjoyed bipartisan support, but over which many, including some in the administration, have cooled as we’ve hit more difficult tests with Ukraine and Georgia.
Trip 1. Along with Jim Jones, Biden was the first high-level administration official to visit Europe in February when he headlined the Munich Security Conference and announced the Russia “reset button” policy while asserting this policy would not recognize a Russian sphere of influence. He used the visit to underscore how much the administration intended to listen to its Allies and signaled the important role open to Europe in working with the United States.
Trip 2. Biden made a special trip to NATO Headquarters on the heels of Clinton to preview the administration’s AFPAK review and solicit Allied input shortly before rolling out the policy in Washington. While not exactly generating major new European commitments, the visit helped buy Allies into the review and paved the way for a warm European reaction when the policy was formally announced.
Trip 3. Biden’s early visit to the Balkans demonstrated that the administration valued the U.S. political and military investment in the region over two decades and is determined to help it succeed. He broke through stalemated relations with Serbia, delivered tough love messages to Bosnian leaders on the wrong track and bolstered Kosovo as an independent, democratic and multi-ethnic state. At the same time, his visit challenged the Europeans to complete the goal of integrating the Balkans.
Trip 4. Most recently, Biden reassured nervous partners by demonstrating in deeds what he had said in Munich and what Obama said in Moscow (but what was not totally believed in Kyiv or Tbilisi) — that the reset policy would not come at the expense of states like Ukraine and Georgia. For the first time, Biden articulated a coherent U.S. policy toward Ukraine and Georgia which went beyond dealing with them through the prism of Moscow. While reassuring friends, he also delivered blunt messages about the need for reform in both states. He executed a difficult mission brilliantly.
These four trips together have helped define an Administration policy toward Europe focused on working with our European allies on global challenges such as Afghanistan, but also continuing the bipartisan tradition of helping to advance a Europe whole, free and at peace. Rather than repudiate the Freedom Agenda, Biden is rebranding it to ensure that its objectives in Europe sustain bipartisan support.
Damon Wilson is director of the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program.