US foreign policy: no change

This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.

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

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 administratio n'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 be
ar, 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.

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 Russian
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 administr
ation seeking Russian cooperation in Afghanistan.

As for Germany, NATO was an instrument of rehabilitation and
stability after World War II. But Germany now has a complex
relationship with Russia, as well as internal issues. It does not want
NATO drawing it into adventures that are not in Germany's primary
interest, much less into a confrontation with Russia. No amount of
charm, openness or dialogue is going to change this fundamental

Dialogue does offer certain possibilities. The United States could
choose to talk to Iran without preconditions. It could abandon NATO
expansion and quietly reduce its influence in the former Soviet Union,
or perhaps convince the Russians that they could benefit from this
influence. The United States could abandon the BMD system (though this
has been complicated by Iran's recent successful satellite launch),
or perhaps get the Russians to participate in the program. The United
States could certainly get the Germans to send a small force to
Afghanistan above and beyond the present German contingent. All of this
is possible.

What can't be achieved is a fundamental transformation of the
geopolitical realities of the world. No matter how Obama campaigned, it
is clear he knows that. Apart from his preoccupation with economic
matters, Obama understands that foreign policy is governed by
impersonal forces and is not amenable to rhetoric, although rhetoric
might make things somewhat easier. No nation gives up its fundamental
interests because someone is willing to talk.

Willingness to talk is important, but what is said is much more
important. Obama's first foray into foreign policy via Biden indicates
that, generally speaking, he understands the constraints and pressures that drive American foreign policy,
and he understands the limits of presidential power. Atmospherics
aside, Biden's positions — as opposed to his rhetoric — were strikingly
similar to Cheney's foreign policy positions.

We argued long ago that presidents don't make history, but that
history makes presidents. We see Biden's speech as a classic example of
this principle.


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