In a major speech at the February 7 Munich Security
Conference, Vice President Joe Biden outlined the Obama
Administration's foreign policy vision for the first time on the
world stage. It was an address designed to reach out to leaders in
both Europe and the Middle East, "on behalf of a new Administration
determined to set a new tone in Washington, and in America's
relations around the world."
Biden's speech should be viewed as one of the weakest
projections of U.S. leadership on foreign soil in recent memory.
The message was confused, apologetic, over-conciliatory, and
remarkably lacking in substance and detail. It was the kind of
speech, heavy in platitudes and diplo-speak, that could easily have
been given by a continental European bureaucrat nestled in
Brussels, Paris, or Berlin. It was not the voice of the most
powerful nation on earth.
The Vice President went to great lengths in his speech to avoid
offending America's enemies, such as Iran and Hamas, or her
strategic competitors, such as Russia. One could have been forgiven
for thinking that the world was largely at peace rather than facing
the threat of global terrorism or a dangerous rogue regime
aggressively seeking nuclear weapons capability.
Biden's remarks touched on several key areas, from Iran to NATO
reform--all of which gave major cause for concern--and left
critical questions unanswered.
The Vice President confirmed the new Administration's
willingness to enter into direct negotiations with the Islamist
regime in Tehran.
In essence, Biden offered a quid pro quo deal with
Iran--the kind the European Union has offered for several years
with absolutely nothing to show for it except spectacular failure.
Such a deal is based on the naïve premise that the Iranian
theocracy is a normal state actor that plays by the rules of
diplomacy and can be negotiated with. What was missing in Biden's
remarks was any explicit statement of consequences--actions ranging
from tougher economic and military sanctions or the use of force
against Iran's nuclear facilities--that could be inflicted on the
dictatorial government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the
ruling mullahs if they do not comply. There was no appeal to
European Union countries such as Germany to tighten their own
sanctions on Tehran or calls for Russia and China to strengthen
U.N. Security Council sanctions.
The Vice President stated that the United States "will continue
to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian
capability, provided the technology is proven to work and cost
effective." However, Biden gave no pledge to press ahead with a
third-site missile defense system in Eastern and Central Europe,
sowing the seeds of further confusion in Poland and the Czech
Republic, two key U.S. allies who have agreed to participate in the
defense system by hosting missile interceptors and early warning
radar. In addition, National Security Adviser James Jones confirmed
in an interview with the British Observer newspaper that
plans for third-site defenses had been "put on ice," a decision
that, accord to according to a senior NATO official, is a clear
overture to Moscow.
Aside from a refusal to recognize the breakaway Georgian
provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, there was little evidence
in Biden's speech that the Obama Administration intends to adopt a
tough line toward Russian aggression in its "Near Abroad" or
attempts to bully and intimidate its neighbors in the Caucasus as
well as Eastern Europe. Significantly, Biden made no mention of
U.S. support for Georgian and Ukrainian Membership in the NATO
Membership Action Plan or Russia's brutal invasion of Georgia last
The willingness of the Obama team to bring Moscow into its
negotiations over Third Site sets a dangerous precedent and is a
clear signal that the Russians may be given a bigger say over NATO
expansion plans. As Biden put it in his speech, "the last few years
have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the
members of our Alliance--it is time to reset the button and to
revisit the many areas where we can and should work together."
Strategically, it would be both naïve and risky for the new
Administration to turn a blind eye toward an increasingly
belligerent and nationalist Moscow that is actively flexing its
muscles in Europe and across the globe.
While reiterating the importance of the NATO alliance and the
need for its renewal in the 21st century, the Vice President
supports policies that will undermine the organization and weaken
American influence within it. In Munich, Biden backed the full
reintegration of France into "NATO structures," and French officers
are reportedly in line to take two senior alliance command
positions: Allied Command Transformation and Joint Command
Lisbon. Biden also made it clear in his Munich
address that the United States will "support the further
strengthening of European defense, an increased role for the
European Union in preserving peace and security, (and) a
fundamentally stronger NATO-EU partnership."
These changes would give Paris (and its key ally Berlin) an
extraordinary degree of power and influence within the
organization, out of all proportion to its minimal military role in
alliance operations. Such a move would ultimately shift power away
from Washington and London and toward continental Europe,
undoubtedly paving the way for the development of a Franco-German
driven European Union defense identity within NATO.
Biden identified the war in Afghanistan as a top foreign policy
priority for the Obama Administration, calling for close
cooperation with America's allies in Europe as well as the
government of Pakistan. The Vice President, however, avoided the
thorny issue of many European nations' failure to pull their weight
in the conflict, an oversight that projected weakness and an
unwillingness to challenge European complacency and
Despite all the fashionable rhetoric in European capitals about
Iraq being a distraction to the war against the Taliban, on the
battlefields of Afghanistan over two-thirds of the more than 50,000
troops serving as part of the NATO-led International Security
Assistance Force are from the English-speaking countries of the
U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia. These nations have also taken 85
percent of the casualties. Britain has more troops (8,900) in the
country than all the other major European Union powers combined,
many of which, like Germany, cower under dozens of "caveats" aimed
at keeping their soldiers out of harm's way.
War on Terrorism
Significantly absent from the Vice President's address was any
reference to the war on terrorism or the need for the United States
and its allies to be prepared for a long hard battle against
Islamist terrorism. Biden spoke in soft terms of "a shared struggle
against extremism" and of "a small number of violent extremists
[who] are beyond the call of reason," as well as the need to seek
with the Muslim world "a new way forward based on mutual interest
and mutual respect." There was no indication given of the sheer
scale of the global fight against al-Qaeda and its allies. Al-Qaeda
is mentioned just once in Biden's speech, and only within the
context of Afghanistan.
The Vice President also avoided directly mentioning terrorist
attacks by Hamas against Israel. There were no words of support for
Israel's recent offensive against Hamas in Gaza, suggesting a
significant shift away from open support for Israel by the new U.S.
Biden also chose to ignore altogether the extraordinary success
of U.S. counterterrorism operations in Iraq through the surge and
the huge improvement in security in the previously war-torn country
that enabled the overwhelmingly peaceful Iraqi provincial elections
to take place at the end of January.
A Celebration of Soft Power
Vice President Biden delivered what was in essence a
quintessentially European-style speech on German soil. It was an
address that tried to be all things to all people, lacking in
concrete policy prescriptions and cloaked in vague statements
designed to cause minimal offense in foreign capitals, including
those of America's worst enemies. Biden's address was above all a
celebration of "soft power," cynically re-branded by the Obama
Administration as "smart power."
American leadership is not a popularity contest but the
hard-nosed projection of U.S. interests. Rather than projecting
strength and decisiveness internationally, the new Administration's
approach to foreign policy appears muddled and incoherent. Biden's
words revealed a foreign policy with a dangerously soft underbelly,
one that will quickly be exploited by America's opponents on the
Washington must stand up to the Iranian nuclear threat, the
resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the global menace of
al-Qaeda, and Russian intimidation in Europe with strength,
resolve, and conviction. A foreign policy capable of meeting such
challenges must include a willingness to wield maximum force where
necessary, deploy a comprehensive missile shield in Europe, and
increase military spending in the defense of the United States and
the free world.
Ph.D., is director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for
Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis
Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage