February 5, 2009

A major overseas conference provides the Obama administration its first chance to influence the direction of transatlantic relations.  David Rising reports for AP.

 

A high-powered U.S. delegation headed by Vice President Joe Biden will join a prestigious weekend conference in Germany likely to focus on Iran's nuclear program and NATO troop commitments to Afghanistan. The Munich Security Conference gathers a dozen world leaders and 50 top diplomats and defense officials and comes amid high expectations that it could also presage a thaw in relations between Washington and Moscow. Ties have been strained over U.S. plans to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

"I see signals that the U.S. as well as Russia are interested in a new beginning," Wolfgang Ischinger, the conference chairman and a former German ambassador to London and Washington, told Bonn's General-Anzeiger newspaper this week. "The fact that the new American administration has decided to make their first appearance in foreign and security issues outside the United States, represented by their vice president in Munich, speaks for itself," Ischinger said. "I consider this a significant signal."

There are several good signs on the U.S.-Russia relations front, most notably the seeming accord on missiles and the recent deal to allow supply of the Afghanistan effort through Russian territory.  Less hopeful is the creation of a 7-nation rapid reaction force and Russia's manuevering to close Kyrgyzstan's Manas air base.  Thawed relations will be mostly on Russian terms, requiring American acquiescence to a Russian sphere of influence in the region.

Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and deeply versed in U.S. policy abroad, is expected to push allies at the conference for a greater share of the diplomatic, military and economic burdens confronting the new administration of President Barack Obama.  At the top of the list is keeping pressure on Europe to commit more troops to Afghanistan, and also to contribute more money to finance the Afghan army.  The U.S. delegation includes Obama's national security adviser, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Germany, one of the major European troop contributors, has repeatedly said its military is too stretched to commit any more personnel, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said that did not mean the door to such discussions was closed. "In Munich there's not only the possibility to discuss the expectations and the recommendations of the new (American) administration, but also an important opportunity for the main European actors to present their own suggestions and develop conceptional ideas," spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said.

One wonders how much of an opportunity, however.  There's virtually no evidence that Europe has the political will to increase its military spending, let alone its troop commitment for out of area operations.  Without those moves, everything else is just talk.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

 

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