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International | The Munich Security Conference and the continuity between the Bush and Obama foreign policies

While the Munich Security Conference brought together senior leaders from most major countries and many minor ones last weekend, none was more significant than U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. This is because Biden provided the first glimpse of U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama. Most conference attendees were looking forward to a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration. What was interesting about Biden's speech was how little change there has been in the U.S. position and how much the attendees and the media were cheered by it.

After Biden's speech, there was much talk about a change in the tone of U.S. policy. But it is not clear to us whether this was because the tone has changed, or because the attendees' hearing has. They seemed delighted to be addressed by Biden rather than by former Vice President Dick Cheney-delighted to the extent that this itself represented a change in policy. Thus, in everything Biden said, the conference attendees saw rays of a new policy.

Policy continuity: Iran and Russia

Consider Iran. The Obama administration's position, as staked out by Biden, is that the United States is prepared to speak directly to Iran provided that the Iranians do two things. First, Tehran must end its nuclear weapons program. Second, Tehran must stop supporting terrorists, by which Biden meant Hamas and Hezbollah. Once the Iranians do that, the Americans will talk to them. The Bush administration was equally prepared to talk to Iran given those preconditions. The Iranians make the point that such concessions come after talks, not before, and that the United States must change its attitude toward Iran before there can be talks, something Iranian Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani emphasized after the meeting. Apart from the emphasis on a willingness to talk, the terms Biden laid out for such talks are identical to the terms under the Bush administration.

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Now consider Russia. Officially, the Russians were delighted to hear that the United States was prepared to hit the "reset button" on U.S.-Russian relations. But Moscow cannot have been pleased when it turned out that hitting the reset button did not involve ruling out NATO expansion, ending American missile defense system efforts in Central Europe or publicly acknowledging the existence of a Russian sphere of influence. Biden said, "It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances." In translation, this means the United States has the right to enter any relationship it wants with independent states, and that independent states have the right to enter any relationship they want. In other words, the Bush administration's commitment to the principle of NATO expansion has not changed.

Nor could the Russians have been pleased with the announcement just prior to the conference that the United States would continue developing a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The BMD program has been an issue of tremendous importance for Russians, and it is something Obama indicated he would end, or change in some way that might please the Russians. But not only was there no commitment to end the program, there also was no backing away from long-standing U.S. interest in it, or even any indication of the terms under which it might end.

Given that the United States has asked Russia for a supply route through the former Soviet Union to Afghanistan, and that the Russians have agreed to this in principle, it would seem that that there might be an opening for a deal with the Russians. But just before the Munich conference opened, Kyrgyzstan announced that Manas Air Base, the last air base open to the United States in Central Asia, would no longer be available to American aircraft. This was a tidy little victory for the Russians, who had used political and financial levers to pressure Kyrgyzstan to eject the Americans. The Russians, of course, deny that any such pressure was ever brought to bear, and that the closure of the base one day before Munich could have been anything more than coincidence.

But the message to the United States was clear: While Russia agrees in principle to the U.S. supply line, the Americans will have to pay a price for it. In case Washington was under the impression it could get other countries in the former Soviet Union to provide passage, the Russians let the Americans know how much leverage Moscow has in these situations. The U.S. assertion of a right to bilateral relations won't happen in Russia's near abroad without Russian help, and that help won't come without strategic concessions from the United States. In short, the American position on Russia hasn't changed, and neither has the Russian position.

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