Vice President Biden gave a much-anticipated speech at an international security conference in Munich on Saturday. Before an audience of several hun
February 7, 2009

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Vice President Biden gave a much-anticipated speech at an international security conference in Munich on Saturday. Before an audience of several hundred - including General David Petraeus (seen scribbling notes while the VP spoke), Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser Jones, French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel - Biden set out a US foreign policy vision which was both less hardline than the Bush administration's and yet firmly hawkish.

There's much to be glad about in Biden's speech.

To meet the challenges of this new century, defense and diplomacy are necessary. But quite frankly, ladies and gentlemen, they are not sufficient. We also need to wield development and democracy, two of the most powerful weapons in our collective arsenals. Poor societies and dysfunctional states, as you know as well as I do, can become breeding grounds for extremism, conflict and disease. Non-democratic nations frustrate the rightful aspirations of their citizens and fuel resentment.

Our administration has set an ambitious goal to increase foreign assistance, to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015, to help eliminate the global educational deficit, and to cancel the debt of the world's poorest countries; to launch a new Green Revolution that produces sustainable supplies of food, and to advance democracy not through the imposition of force from the outside, but by working with moderates in government and civil society to build those institutions that will protect that freedom -- quite frankly, the only thing that will guarantee that freedom.

We also are determined to build a sustainable future for our planet. We are prepared to once again begin to lead by example. America will act aggressively against climate change and in pursuit of energy security with like-minded nations.

But there are some glaringly hawkish moments that reveal America isn't quite as willing to give up acting from its position of possessing overwhelming force as it would like others to be.

Biden called Iran's nuclear program "illicit" and described Iran's aim as "the development of nuclear weapons" depite both the US and the IAEA admitting they have found no evidence that Iran has a current weapons program. If the Iranian weapons program is purely civilian then it is Iran's treaty right as an NPT member to have such a program and only UNSC resolutions which came as a result of deliberate pressure and horse-trading from a Bush administration which wrongly claimed a weapons program as part of that pressure remain as belated and mistaken means to call their program "illicit". Like his president and SecState Clinton - and just about every other major Western politician - Biden ignores the truth to keep the Bush narrative going. But it's a narrative Russia has said it won't sign on to any more.

And Russia is going to have problems with other parts of Biden's speech too.

Mr. Biden also rejected the notion of a Russian sphere of influence and said that Mr. Obama would continue to press NATO to seek “deeper cooperation” with like-minded countries. “We will continue to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven and it is cost-effective,” Mr. Biden said.

His wording virtually echoed the stance on missile defense that Mr. Obama took during the presidential campaign, but was notable because Mr. Biden did not announce a strategic review of the issue, which administration officials had considered as a way to defuse tensions between Washington and Moscow.

Although his language was tempered, Mr. Biden also said, “We will not agree with Russia on everything.”

“For example, the United States will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. We will not — 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.”

So the neocons get some of their way - the dangerously destabilizing doctrine of unilateral missile defense, which is clearly aimed at Russia, will continue, although now it will have to actually jump through some real hoops on costs and performance. As to Georgia's breakaway regions - I wonder if it would be worth pointing out that arguably by the same logic Texas should be part of Mexico, Hawaii independent and decades of US meddling in its Latin American backyard entirely illegal. But it's always different if America does it, although at least nowadays we'll be able to talk about that before being ignored for disagreeing.

Still, Biden is correct that there's a lot Russia and the US could co-operate upon.

Our Russian colleagues long ago warned about the rising threat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Today, NATO and Russia can, and should, cooperate to defeat this common enemy. We can and should cooperate to secure loose nuclear weapons and materials to prevent their spread, to renew the verification procedures in the START Treaty, and then go beyond existing treaties to negotiate deeper cuts in both our arsenals. The United States and Russia have a special obligation to lead the international effort to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world.

The Bush administration's war-lovers dragged their feet on all of those, though, and if the Obama administration is also to be so ungiving on matters that matter most to Russia then surely the Russians can be forgiven if they borrow from Reagan's playbook and "trust but verify". Undoubtably, America won't see it that way.

Biden promised that the Obama administration would always reach for diplomacy and international agreements first and the importance of that change cannot be downplayed. "We'll work in a partnership whenever we can, and alone only when we must," he said. It's a sharp contrast the what Russian parliamentarian Konstantin Kosachev described as President Bush’s approach “that everything is already predecided, everything is clear and should be done the way the American administration thinks about it.” But Biden also made it clear in that one sentence that if America cannot get its own way in international forums or cannot forge a coalition of the willing on US policy then America will go its own way and act unilaterally (presumably with no UNSC resolutions in sight).

In other words, it's still "my way or the highway", but the Obama administration has at least tacked on "let's talk first" before imposing America's will as biggest bully on the block. Nowhere is this clearer than on Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Biden called in respectful enough tones for more committment from America's NATO allies. Yet it will have escaped none of those NATO allies that they're being expected to commit to a US plan, after US review, rather than a fully-integrated and agreed NATO one - even though some NATO allies have legitimate misgivings about America's plans and actions in the region. Sure, America will listen to its allies - but the decision on what to do next will remain an American one and allies are expected to commit to it whether they fully agree or not.

That's arrogance America rightly wouldn't tolerate from any other nation but expects the rest of the world to want to see as America being reasonable. America as a nation seems incapable of seeing the cognitive disconnect there, perhaps because it has been so often told that it is the sole true light of "freedom" in the world - just as Britons once were during their age of Empire. The implicit exceptionalist assumption is that America is free to impose purely because of its Manifest Destiny to be that Light. Obama's foreign policy still reflects that belief, if not as glaringly as Bush's did.

Crossposted from Newshoggers

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