Europe listens cautiously to Obama agenda

Biden opens a door on Iran, but presses allies on Afghanistan.

Michael Dalder/Reuters
Obama’s policies: Vice President Joe Biden addressed European leaders Saturday in Munich, Germany, saying the US was willing to talk to Iran and was ready to ‘press the reset’ button on Russian relations.

Stressing partnership and cooperation, Vice President Joe Biden opened a new chapter in American foreign affairs at a major conference of allies in Germany, offering talks with Iran and a bid to "reboot" troubled Russian relations.

But members of the White House foreign-policy team, including national security adviser Gen. James Jones, also issued an appeal to move urgently on Afghanistan, which General Jones says is "not simply an American problem, but an international problem."

The double-edged message was received with deep appreciation – and soberness. The new US president is well-liked in Europe, but support is weak for sending combat troops to Afghanistan. The issue could be deeply divisive; but for now, the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, where the summit was held, at times felt like a diplomatic lovefest.

France is rejoining NATO, German and French relations have come out of a funk, and Russia reacted warmly to US promises to take a fresh approach to relations with Moscow – despite President Obama's intentions to continue pursuing a controversial missile shield in Eastern Europe.

Speaking Saturday to an audience of top European leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and leaders of NATO, Mr. Biden said that the US would not act alone overseas, would not sacrifice its values for its security, and would address climate change. He spoke of a "new tone – rooted in partnerships ... that is not a luxury, but a necessity."

On Sunday, however, Gen. Jones told representatives of nations that have troops in Afghanistan that the current approach to the eight-year war "doesn't match the urgency required," and implied the Obama team was not going to sit on its hands. In coming months, a revamped National Security Agency will be in a "continuous and rapid consultation" with allies on Afghanistan solutions, to reshape NATO to be more proactive at a "crossroads of history.... we cannot afford failure."

A certain "Obama factor" was behind much of the reaction here. "If someone from the Bush team told us this, we would immediately disagree," said Jochen Bittner, a columnist for Germany's Die Zeit newspaper, "it would be rejected. But this is different. We have to listen."

John Kornblum, businessman and the former US ambassador to Germany, says the Munich summit is about "a righting of relations with Europe." The US delegation, he says, "said all the right things. I wouldn't underestimate how beaten up the Europeans have felt, diplomatically."

The Munich summit has been convened annually since the 1970s, when most of the discussion centered on arms control. In recent years, the forum has highlighted political tensions, as in 2003 when German foreign minister Joschka Fischer and US defense chief Donald Rumsfeld clashed over whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In 2007, Russia's Vladimir Putin outlined a new, more assertive position on Russia's neighbors, and vehemently opposed NATO expansion. Last year, the US delegation walked out during a talk by Iranian head of parliament Ali Larijani.

This year, Mr. Larijani spoke without a walkout – though he was conspicuously absent during Biden's speech. While Larijani detailed years of Iranian grievances: a double-standard on nuclear accession by the West, and the travails of the people of Gaza in the recent war there – considered a requirement for a domestic audience in Iran – his speech was also studded with clear openings to the new American administration, saying that it was time to "build bridges."

Robert Hunter, former US ambassador to NATO, pointed out that the delegation from Tehran was far larger than expected and that the Europeans were finding "some enthusiasm in Larijani's statements, like the one that there is a 'golden opportunity for the United States' at this moment."

Regarding Russia, Biden affirmed an effort to take up the Start 2 arms-control talks that expire this year. He said it is "time to press the reset button" on Russia-US relations," but added that the Obama team would not agree with Russia on everything and "will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states." The two regions of Georgia were recognized by Moscow after the war in Georgia last summer, and Moscow is said to be eyeing Abkhazia as a warm-water port.

Last week, Russia offered more than $2 billion in economic blandishments to persuade Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to order the closure of the US airbase at Manas, a major staging point for supplies to Afghanistan and the last remaining American outpost in former Soviet Central Asia.

"The message here speaks directly to the state of US-Russia relations," says Andrey Fedorov, political project director of the nongovernmental Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a Moscow think tank. "We want to support the NATO mission in Afghanistan, and we have many common goals. But the US needs to understand that they must negotiate with Russia if they want to establish an alternative supply route to Afghanistan through former Soviet territory."

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said his country was eager "to start anew," with the US, but he offered no immediate concessions on contentious issues. "It is not an Oriental bazaar," Mr. Ivanov said in a news conference Sunday, "And we do not trade the way people do in the bazaars."

Ivanov also repeated Moscow's plans to install Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad if the US pushes forward on an antiballistic missile shield. President Obama has said he would continue to pursue the shield, which is meant to protect against possible missiles from Iran, if the system proves reliable. Ivanov suggested a joint effort using Russian radar.

US officials privately said that the Munich summit is simply an opening up, a getting-to-know-the-allies moment, and that the Obama administration is just getting started with a number of 60-day policy reviews. More specifics and even conclusions are expected in April at a NATO 60th anniversary summit.

Ulrike Guérot, of the European Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin says: "This seems a new 'can-do' administration and they want to cooperate with Russia. Biden is saying Russia is not nice, but we need to work with them. It is a new kind of language, and people were just basking in it."

Leading up to the April meeting, US officials are expected to make stronger pushes for more troops and equipment for Afghanistan – requests that could very well reduce Obama's glimmer in Europe. For now, though, leaders here are happy to hear the new president's message of cooperation, says Ralf Fuecks, head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin.

"The main signal of the meeting here is good will," he says. "You can just feel it in the room, you can feel the relief, and it is a feeling that hasn't been here for some time. We want to be spoken to as partners. But that doesn't mean Europeans will be willing to offer at lot more troops for Afghanistan."

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