Biden at the Munich Security Conference: Obama Sends Vice President to Build Bridges

By in Washington

US Vice President Joe Biden is the star guest at the Munich Security Conference this weekend. His speech on Saturday is supposed to form the basis of the new trans-Atlantic partnership. Instead of concrete pledges, experts await a bid to mend ties between Europe and the US.

It's been little over three weeks since Joe Biden became deputy to the most powerful man in the world and he still hasn't grown into his new role. The former senator can be seen at the State Department discussing foreign policy or dining with President Barack Obama in the White House. Sometimes he presents himself as a champion of the middle class, at other times he appears in shirtsleeves on a railway platform pleading for investment in infrastructure. "It is hard now," he admitted in a recent TV interview. "What I have to think now is, everything I say, I am the vice president. I am not the president. So everything I say reflects directly on the administration."

US President Barack Obama (L) and Vice President Joe Biden.
REUTERS

US President Barack Obama (L) and Vice President Joe Biden.

This Saturday Biden will be speaking explicitly on behalf of the United States. His speech at the Munich Security Conference will be the vice president's first major international appearance -- and the Bavarian capital is rolling out the red carpet for him. The conference organizers promise that his speech will provide the impetus for a new start in trans-Atlantic relations.

What are the expectations for the speech? "The tone is the message," Laurie Dundon, who previously worked with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and is now at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The right words would define the parameters for future cooperation, just as preparations are being made for Obama's Europe trip at the beginning of April to the G-20 summit in London and the NATO summit in Kehl and Strasbourg."

It is important to the White House that this gesture of reconciliation is going to be made by Biden instead of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had originally been scheduled to attend. However, as the only surviving member of the Bush administration in the new cabinet he would not exactly represent a new beginning in trans-Atlantic relations. Biden, on the other hand, can be expected to build on the flowery rhetoric then presidential candidate Obama employed for his speech at Berlin's Victory Column last July. "Now is the time to build new bridges. America has no better partner than Europe," were the words Obama chose to woo his hosts back then.

'Cooperation, Diplomacy, Respect'

It is unlikely, however, that Biden will make any specific reference to the controversial missile defense shield, parts of which are to be based in Eastern Europe -- a plan that has infuriated Russia and which could see its budget cut by Obama. And the speech is also unlikely to include any clear move away from Washington's push for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, although this is something that was far more important to the former administration. Meanwhile, the finer contours of a new policy on the issues of Afghanistan and Iran's nuclear program have still to be decided in Washington.

The White House has been quick to dampen expectations for the conference. "There will be no announcements beyond a broad and pretty forceful statement about the new administration's new approach to the trans-Atlantic relationship and foreign policy in general -- a great emphasis on cooperation, diplomacy, respect for our allies and their concerns and opinions," a White House official told Reuters.

The concrete politics will be confined to the informal talks at the sidelines of the meeting, something the Munich conference is famous for. Biden is to be accompanied by a heavy-hitting team: James Jones, the National Security Adviser, Gen. David Petraeus, the US military commander for the Middle East and Afghanistan and Richard Holbrooke, the newly appointed envoy for Afghanistan. The Americans will be particularly interested in talking to Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov and Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- someone who is not said to enjoy Obama's unconditional support due to the corruption scandals associated with his government.

Washington Ready to Listen

Biden could also use the speech to make Obama's expectations of Europeans clearer. In her meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Tuesday in Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton already approached the issue of Afghanistan. "We need our closest allies … to help us ensure success," she said.

It has become something of a platitude that the end of the Bush era could force Europeans to take on new responsibilities. Steinmeier warned against confining the trans-Atlantic debate to possible demands by the Americans with regards to Afghanistan. In this he is in unison with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has so far shown little inclination to share her foreign minister's "Yes, We can" enthusiasm for Obama. A person close to the chancellor, speaking to SPIEGEL ONLINE, said: "We cannot be constantly thinking about what the Americans are going to demand. We have to present the Americans with concrete offers and expectations."

Ulrike Guérot of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "Iraq and Afghanistan, which so many trans-Atlantic commentators are now talking about, are actually just side shows. The Obama people are too clever to make demands on the Europeans which they cannot fulfil." That jives with the assessment of many diplomats that Obama is not about to ask for more German troops in southern Afghanistan.

According to Guérot, the question that is much more important is whether the Europeans and the US can agree at all on how to deal with Russia in the future. "There are an enormous number of ways that the Europeans can wave flags at the moment," says Laurie Dundon. "America needs help on so many fronts. Climate change, financial architecture, global trade, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Middle East. The Europeans have to offensively formulate how they can help here."

And the Americans have to listen. That they are willing to do so again has been made clear by every statement emanating from Obama's new foreign policy team. Whether it be Clinton, or the new ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice -- or Vice President Biden on Saturday. To be able to listen -- that would be the clearest way to mark the break with eight years of George W. Bush.

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