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Similar positions

"Similar positions" Continued...

The Europeans

The most interesting-and for us, the most anticipated-part of Biden's speech had to do with the Europeans, of whom the French and Germans were the most enthusiastic about Bush's departure and Obama's arrival. Biden's speech addressed the core question of the U.S.-European relationship.

If the Europeans were not prepared to increase their participation in American foreign policy initiatives during the Bush administration, it was assumed that they would be during the Obama administration. The first issue on the table under the new U.S. administration is the plan to increase forces in Afghanistan. Biden called for more NATO involvement in that conflict, which would mean an increase in European forces deployed to Afghanistan. Some countries, along with the head of NATO, support this. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that Germany is not prepared to send more troops.

Over the past year or so, Germany has become somewhat estranged from the United States. Dependent on Russian energy, Germany has been unwilling to confront Russia on issues of concern to Washington. Merkel has made it particularly clear that while she does not oppose NATO expansion in principle, she certainly opposes expansion to states that Russia considers deeply within its sphere of influence (primarily Georgia and Ukraine). The Germans have made it abundantly clear that they do not want to see European-Russian relations deteriorate under U.S. prodding. Moreover, Germany has no appetite for continuing its presence in Afghanistan, let alone increasing it.

NATO faces a substantial split, conditioned partly by Germany's dependence on Russian energy, but also by deep German unease about any possible resumption of a Cold War with Russia, however mild. The foundation of NATO during the Cold War was the U.S.-German-British relationship. With the Germans unwilling to align with the United States and other NATO members over Russia or Afghanistan, it is unclear whether NATO can continue to function. (Certainly, Merkel cannot be pleased that the United States has not laid the BMD issue in Poland and the Czech Republic to rest.)

The more things change . . .

Most interesting here is the continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations in regard to foreign policy. It is certainly reasonable to argue that after only three weeks in office, no major initiatives should be expected of the new president. But major initiatives were implied-such as ending the BMD deployment to Poland and the Czech Republic-and declaring the intention to withdraw BMD would not have required much preparation. But Biden offered no new initiatives beyond expressing a willingness to talk, without indicating any policy shifts regarding the things that have blocked talks. Willingness to talk with the Iranians, the Russians, the Europeans and others shifts the atmospherics-allowing the listener to think things have changed-but does not address the question of what is to be discussed and what is to be offered and accepted.

Ultimately, the issues dividing the world are not, in our view, subject to personalities, nor does goodwill (or bad will, for that matter) address the fundamental questions. Iran has strategic and ideological reasons for behaving the way it does. So does Russia. So does Germany, and so on. The tensions that exist between those countries and the United States might be mildly exacerbated by personalities, but nations are driven by interest, not personality.

Biden's position did not materially shift the Obama administration away from Bush's foreign policy, because Bush was the prisoner of that policy, not its creator. The Iranians will not make concessions on nuclear weapons prior to holding talks, and they do not regard their support for Hamas or Hezbollah as aiding terrorism. Being willing to talk to the Iranians provided they abandon these things is the same as being unwilling to talk to them.

There has been no misunderstanding between the United States and Russia that more open dialogue will cure. The Russians see no reason for NATO expansion unless NATO is planning to encircle Russia. It is possible for the West to have relations with Ukraine and Georgia without expanding NATO; Moscow sees the insistence on expansion as implying sinister motives. For its part, the United States refuses to concede that Russia has any interest in the decisions of the former Soviet Union states, something Biden reiterated. Therefore, either the Russians must accept NATO expansion, or the Americans must accept that Russia has an overriding interest in limiting American relations in the former Soviet Union. This is a fundamental issue that any U.S. administration would have to deal with-particularly an administration seeking Russian cooperation in Afghanistan.

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