February 10, 2009

Last weekend’s 45th Munich Security Conference afforded the world its first look at the emerging foreign policy of U.S. President Barack Obama.  The conference’s mostly European audience heard the constructive new tone for which it had hoped.  However, the substantive policy studiously delivered by all Administration representatives in Munich was one of cautious continuity.

Expectations were high and Washington rose to the occasion, dispatching Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser James Jones, Special Envoy for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke and U.S. Central Command chief General David Petraeus.

The audience applauded enthusiastically when Biden took the stage on February 7.  And the Vice President wasted no time in extending America’s hand to its European allies.

“I come to Europe,” Biden told the participants at the posh Bayerischer Hof Hotel, “on behalf of a new administration, and an administration that is determined to set a new tone not only in Washington, but in America's relations around the world.  That new tone is rooted in a strong bipartisanship to meet these common challenges.  And we recognize that these challenges, the need to meet them, are not an opportunity, not a luxury, but an absolute necessity.”

A stern dose of reality followed immediately: “While every new beginning is a moment of hope, this moment for America and the countries represented in this room—it is fraught with some considerable concern and peril.”

The message was clear: there are dangers out there and you can no longer blame your failure to face them on an unpopular American president.  “America will do more.  That is the good news.  The bad news is that America will ask more from our partners as well.”

A renewed western spirit must now match this renewed American one.

“There is no conflict between our security and our ideals … the example of our power must be matched by the power of our example,” Biden said.

“America will not torture.  We will uphold the rights of those we bring to justice.  We will close Guantánamo.”  This, by the way, is also what most Americans wanted to hear.

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

The American Number Two suggested working with Russia on counter-terrorism, Afghanistan, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and further cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear arms.  If the Kremlin wants to curb its aggression, douse its inflammatory rhetoric and stop playing Cold War games, Biden offered plenty of potential areas for cooperation.

He made equally clear that the Obama Administration will not shrink from Moscow’s belligerence.  He did not, as many expected, announce a review of America’s plan to deploy a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland.  “We continue to develop,” Biden said, “missile defense to counter the growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven and it is cost-effective.  We'll do so in consultation with you, our NATO allies, and with Russia.”  One cannot be much more even-handed than that.

The Vice President of the United States also sent an unambiguous signal that the Kremlin had best heed: “The United States will not—will not—recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.  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.”

This is huge for Georgia—a prominent passage in the Obama Administration’s first major foreign policy address!

The next day, meeting with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Biden was asked by a journalist if the U.S. favors NATO membership for Georgia.  “I'm in favor of Georgia's continued independence and autonomy.  That is a decision for Georgia to make.”

With all of Biden’s offers of cooperation and consultation with Russia, Georgia’s continued steps toward NATO should not be a problem—unless the Kremlin chooses to make it so.

From a different perspective, many west Europeans must reexamine the matter of Georgia in NATO under the new light cast by the Obama Administration in Munich.
“Faced with new threats, new realities,” Biden said of NATO, “we need a new resolve to meet them and new capabilities to succeed.  Our Alliance must be better equipped to help stop the spread of the world's most dangerous weapons, to tackle terrorism and cyber-security, to expand the writ of energy security and to act in and out of area more effectively.”

In this context, Georgia in NATO makes sense.  The alliance’s April 3-4 60th Anniversary Summit in Strasbourg and Kehl would be the ideal occasion to say so.

David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.  This column originally appeared in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi's major newspaper. 

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