Munich Through The (Non-American) Looking Glass
By Ahto Lobjakas, RFE/RL
MUNICH -- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who
delivered the first major foreign-policy speech of President Barack Obama's new
administration, was far and away the greatest attraction at this year's 45th
Munich Security Conference.
"As we embark on this renewal project, as we like to think of it, the United
States and other allies would warmly welcome -- and we do warmly welcome -- the
decision by France to fully cooperate in NATO's structures," Biden said. "That's
the main reason [Sarkozy] got our speech. You were supposed to say nicer things
about me when you got the speech, Mr. President. That's a joke."
Leaders of a number of European nations, including Germany and France, and top
decision makers from Russia and Iran, among others, had gathered in anticipation
of perhaps the most fundamental global policy shift since the end of the Cold
Most will leave Munich disappointed.
The United States may recognize the existence of a multiplicity of views, but it
is not prepared to subject itself to the strictures of a multipolar world.
With what could almost be described as nonchalance, Biden brushed aside French
President Nicolas Sarkozy's musings that power in today's world has become "relativized"
by virtue of the rise of "other great powers."
If the United States is subject to encuambrances by "other forces," Biden said,
these are phenomena like disease, poverty, and terrorism -- not other
Rebuff To France, Germany
At other times, the hard steel of Biden's message to Europe was hidden -- and
possibly reinforced -- by patronizing humor.
Welcoming France back into NATO's military structures, Biden also explained an
earlier comment by Sarkozy that he had seen the vice president's speech in
Biden's speech was at one level clearly intended as a rebuff to France and
Germany, whose leaders in recent months have launched a concerted, high-profile
drive to wrench back from Washington some of the control over Europe's security
The Franco-German alliance will be symbolically reaffirmed at NATO's 60th
anniversary summit in early April, hosted jointly by the German town of Kehl and
the French city of Strasbourg.
While the general thrust of the French and German common cause was not in doubt
at Munich, a number of intriguing divergences became evident in the course of
Both countries want to strengthen the "European pillar" in NATO.
Neither wants to admit Ukraine or Georgia into the alliance.
Both feel a new accommodation needs to be reached with Russia reflecting
Moscow's perceived power and ambition.
For Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, this is a common-sense proposition
grounded in geopolitical reality -- Russia's cooperation is essential for the
stability of Europe and the world.
"Russia is, of course, an integral part of the arms control efforts [with] the
United States of America...Apart from this, at the same time, Russia is, in
terms of European interests, a part of Europe and [our] relationship is
therefore of an extraordinary importance," Merkel said.
Germany is willing to consider Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's proposed new
European "security architecture," Merkel said, but added that Europe's interests
are best served by binding Russia to existing security institutions and
mechanisms -- such as the European Union, NATO, and the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe.
For Sarkozy, Russia's main worth resides in the fact that its rise -- just like
that of "other great powers" such as China and India -- strengthens the argument
for multipolarity and gives France a leg up in its quest to stand at eye level
with the United States.
At the Munich conference, Sarkozy himself observed that France's geographical
distance from Russia and the absence of real need for its gas mean his advocacy
of Europe's accommodation of Russian ambition is not inspired by "weakness,
fear, or interest." Recognizing Russia's ambition just makes sense.
The president sought to bolster his case further by arguing that Russia does not
constitute a threat to its allied neighbors.
"I do not believe that today's Russia is a military threat to either the EU or
NATO," he said.
History shows, Sarkozy went on to say, that a country beset by the "fantastic
challenges" affecting Russia -- chief among them demographic decline -- is not
prone to military aggression against its neighbors.
True, the French president conceded, "some member states" fear Russia, and
Russia itself has a "historical fear of encirclement." But in today's world, he
said, with all its problems, and given Europe's wealth and Russia's natural
resources, a confrontation with Moscow would be mindless.
There was variance, too, in the French and German views of the rationale and
benefits of their trans-Atlantic alliances with the United States.
Sarkozy described the relationship as ideally one between allies, predicated on
respect for each others' values and lacking in "imposition." He repeatedly said
French "independence" and its "interests" would ultimately determine his stance.
Merkel reversed that logic, saying unequivocally that Germany's alliance with
the United States and its membership in NATO are first principles that takes
precedence over all other considerations.
"NATO is the central anchor of the trans-Atlantic alliance, to which we commit
our shared interests on the basis of our shared values and which guides our
necessary action," she said. "Article 5 -- the [mutual] assistance clause [of
the NATO treaty] -- remains the basis of the alliance, and the trans-Atlantic
axis is the groundwork of our security architecture."
The preoccupation, however tacit, on the part of most participants at Munich
with the theme of multipolarity meant that relatively little was seen of the
larger countries lacking in ambition, notably Britain, or those lacking
consequence -- notably the Eastern European allies.
If the Munich event does prefigure the shape of things to come, then the smaller
powers' main problem in a multipolar world will be access. The "poles" tend to
hog the limelight and have little time or patience for the views of the smaller
Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk was a participant in the event's flagship
debate but will be remembered mostly as being the butt of Sarkozy's informal
digs -- among them, "Donald, you did not talk enough about the values. But they
are the key, the values."
("Values," Sarkozy argued, somewhat opaquely, represent a member state's -- or a
candidate country's -- capacity to contribute to the common good of the EU or
NATO, including security, without which the organizations would be "destroyed.")
Russia chose to make its contribution early in the event, on February 6.
Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov spoke on arms control and tried to create
the impression that Moscow is patiently waiting for Washington to emerge from a
long, self-imposed period of irrational abandon.
Ivanov did drop an interesting hint on missile defense, however -- suggesting
Russia's global hand may be weakening -- when he said that even if the United
States were to go ahead with building missile-defense facilities in Poland and
the Czech Republic, nothing would be irretrievably lost.
The installations, Ivanov said, would take many years to complete -- giving the
two sides more time to hash out a deal.
With some symmetry, Biden, a day later, appeared to toughen the U.S. position on
the issue, saying it would make its own decision first and consult Moscow later.
Finally, Iran was represented by the speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani.
Larijani raised the spirits of some of his U.S. and European listeners with his
relatively nonbelligerent tone, asking for the United States to give his country
a "chess game, not a boxing match."
But he did also say Washington must leave the region and "indigenize" all
security arrangements there.
RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas has covered the European Union and NATO
for many years. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and
do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Copyright (c) 2009 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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