/ 5 February 2009

Obama administration moves to heal rift with Europe

United States Vice-President Joe Biden will seek to break with the unilateralist tilt of the Bush years by emphasising cooperation and diplomacy in a major weekend foreign policy speech in Germany, US officials said.

His remarks on Saturday to the Munich Security Conference, a gathering of defence and security experts, will be scrutinised for more details on the new administration’s policies on Russia, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Nato expansion.

Analysts said Biden’s trip to Munich could go a long way toward repairing ties with Europe that were severely strained by former US president George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, his policies on climate change and his confrontational approach to Russia.

”It is critical in setting the tone between this administration and the Europeans,” said Sam Brannen, a fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

”Clearly they [Europeans] want him to say the transatlantic relationship is central,” Brannen said.

Biden, on his first trip abroad as vice-president, will head a delegation including retired General James Jones, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser; the US military commander for the Middle East and Afghanistan, General David Petraeus; and Richard Holbrooke, newly appointed special envoy for Afghanistan.

Biden, who headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a long time, will hold bilateral talks with other leaders at the conference. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are on the guest list.

”My instinct is that the message will be that we are here to listen, I am here to take notes,” said Steven Weber, a political science professor at University of California, Berkeley.

Some media have speculated that Biden could use the conference to announce a review of the Bush administration’s planned missile shield in Poland as an olive branch to Russia, but a senior White House official dismissed that.

”There will be no announcements beyond a broad and pretty forceful statement about the new administration’s new approach to the transatlantic relationship and foreign policy in general — a great emphasis on cooperation, diplomacy, respect for our allies and their concerns and opinions,” the official said.

”But with all that positive outreach, we want in return … we need our allies help to solve the world’s biggest problems. That includes diplomatic, military, financial,” he said.

Russian detente?
With the Obama administration trying to formulate a comprehensive strategy to tackle deteriorating security in Afghanistan, analysts said Biden would be asking for more support there, although they were divided on what form that could take — from troops, to training, to development aid.

European leaders have been reluctant to risk soldiers’ lives for a mission that is unpopular with voters, despite repeated appeals from Washington for more help and warnings that terrorism could spread if Nato was defeated there.

Analysts said Europeans would also be watching for any signs of a thawing in ties between the United States and Russia, which deteriorated under Bush and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed in a telephone call last week to stop the ”drift” in ties between their two countries. Russia was later reported to have suspended plans to station missiles on the Polish border.

”We want to work with Russia, and we want to see if we can get off on the right foot with Russia,” the White House official said when asked whether Biden’s speech would signal a new detente with Moscow.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov will be at the conference, but it is not clear whether there are plans for him and Biden to meet.

”The whole point of Munich is that it provides lots of opportunities for a lot of side conversations,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow at Brookings Institution.

With Obama also expressing a willingness to talk directly to Iran over its disputed nuclear programme, conference observers will also be watching for any encounters with members of Iran’s delegation, who include Ali Larijani, Parliament speaker and an influential conservative politician in the Islamic Republic.

But analysts said a meeting between Biden and Larijani was highly unlikely. — Reuters