by John Isaacs
Prepared by Cuyler O’Brien
On February 7, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke at the 45th annual Munich Security Conference and outlined key pillars of the Obama administration’s emerging foreign policy. Biden signaled that the new administration will focus heavily on bilateral and multilateral partnerships. As Biden emphasized, “International alliances and organizations do not diminish America’s power – they help us advance our collective security, economic interests and values.” This statement is an important shift from the Bush administration’s unilateralist approach.
With many significant positions in the administration yet to be filled, specific elements of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy remain unclear. This analysis will review Biden’s Munich speech to gauge the broad themes that seem to be emerging in the early days of the Obama era.
Biden underscored three components of the administration’s stance on nuclear arms control. He said the new administration will seek to “ cooperate to secure loose nuclear weapons and materials and prevent their spread…renew the verification procedures in the [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] and  then go beyond existing treaties to negotiate deeper cuts in our arsenals.”
The commitment to secure loose nuclear weapons and material largely matches President Obama’s campaign promises as well as statements he has made since entering office. A renewal of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) verification procedures is an important part of restarting cooperation with Russia as well as laying the groundwork for future arms reductions. The administration’s endorsement of further arms reductions is an important signal for improved U.S.-Russian relations and a sign of support for the existing nonproliferation regime.
President Obama made similar statements at his February 9 press conference, reaffirming the administration’s commitment to further nuclear reductions and strengthened nuclear non-proliferation efforts.
Biden stated that “We will continue to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven to work and cost effective.” This reinforces Obama’s campaign stance.
The vital qualifier is that missile defense systems must be “proven to work and cost effective.” With Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s recent statements about potential cuts in defense spending, missile defense is an expensive experimental program that may come under new scrutiny. Biden’s caveat could indicate that the administration has no intention of deploying missile defense systems in Europe in the near future. The Vice President also stated that if the United States deploys a missile defense program it “will do so in consultation with our NATO allies and Russia.” This opens up room for negotiating with Russia on missile defense in Europe.
Biden declared “We are willing to talk to Iran, and to offer a very clear choice: continue down your current course and there will be pressure and isolation; abandon your illicit nuclear program and support for terrorism and there will be meaningful incentives.” The administration is still choosing its words on Iran carefully. Biden made no specific mention of Iran freezing its enrichment activities or the prospect of further UN Security Council sanctions. This nuanced policy opens up greater possibilities for dialogue, which Biden explicitly stated was a goal of the administration. Biden also demanded that Iran cease its “support for terrorism.”
The boldest shift in foreign policy rhetoric came regarding Russia. “The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our Alliance…It is time to press the reset button,” said Biden. The administration realizes that engagement with Russia is integral to the achievement of key U.S. national security goals. While Russian rhetoric towards the new administration has varied widely from conciliatory to bellicose, Biden’s verbal overture may be the signal Russia has been looking for. Biden indicated that the Obama administration is willing to move past previous disagreements with Russia and resume a cooperative relationship. If successful, the administration may be able to make headway on a host of issues from Iran to missile defense to trade to terrorism to arms control.
Biden’s February 7 speech was the clearest verbalization yet of the administration’s foreign policy tone now that it has entered office. The Vice President’s speech expressed the administration’s desire to make a clean break from the Bush administration with the hope that it may pay dividends on an array of stalled issues. The next step is for the administration to translate its rhetorical stage-setting into well-executed diplomatic engagement with Russia and Iran.