Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 26 February 2009

Biden’s speech in Munich: “Press the reset button”, and then what?

From 6 to 8 February 2009, more than a dozen heads of state or government, ministers and scores of international experts met for the 45th Munich Security Conference in Germany. There, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden presented a much-anticipated indication of America’s foreign policy under President Barack Obama’s new administration.

As Russian officials hope that U.S.-Russian relations will improve under Obama’s presidency, the Biden speech would have been keenly examined in Moscow. So what signals did the U.S. Vice President send to Russia from Munich? Actually, nothing very reassuring.

It seems that Vice President Biden in Munich was purposefully vague on many important international issues. His speech contained many hints and some colourful but not too meaningful rhetoric, like this now famous line:

it’s time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia.
If only world matters were as easy to reset as a personal computer! His remarks provided little reassurance on three issues that represent Moscow's main security concerns today: missile defence, NATO expansion, and the aftermath of the Georgian-Russian conflict.

Firstly, Biden said that the U.S. “will continue to develop missile defense”. Even if the rumors are true that President Obama may for some reason postpone the deployment of the third missile defence site in Poland and the Czech Republic, that would in any case not change the equation much: the Eastern European site is not important by itself, but only as an integral part of the whole U.S. missile defence system being developed and fielded, an open multi-tiered system already including land, sea, and space-based components. If, as Biden said, the U.S. will continue to develop this system, it is going to enhance and expand, and today nobody can say how this system will look in 15 or 20 years. Eventually the U.S. missile defense system may reach a level of capability sufficient to seriously undermine the deterrent capability of diminishing Russian nuclear forces. That is why Russian politicians and the country’s military are not reassured: they simply cannot afford not to think about what impact this system may have on Russian security.

Secondly, Biden said, “the United States rejects the notion that NATO’s gain is Russia’s loss [...] We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.” To many Russians, this resembles a double standard. It seems as if Biden’s message was taken from George W. Bush’s playbook, which had strongly advocated further NATO expansion, including admission of countries in Russia’s immediate neighborhood. In Moscow, NATO’s advance to its borders is seen as a direct threat to Russian security.

Biden’s speech signals that the new administration in Washington is not likely to remove its support for further NATO expansion - NATO’s boundaries being viewed by many Russians and others as Washington’s own primary sphere of influence. Perhaps decision makers in Moscow can draw some relief from the realization apparent among some European leaders that, having witnessed Georgia’s military campaign in South Ossetia, which prompted a strong response from Moscow last August, and the latest gas dispute between Ukraine and Russia that left European countries without fuel this January, Ukrainian and Georgian membership of NATO in the foreseeable future may not be such a great idea.

Thirdly, the U.S. Vice President said “the United States will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states”. Nobody is going to dispute the sovereign right of the United States to recognize those states it so chooses. But, in my view, hearing from Washington a balanced political assessment of the conflict between Georgia and Russia last August (that is, one more sympathetic to Moscow’s interests) would substantially contribute to “resetting” U.S.-Russian relations.

So, is there a bright side? Biden proposed “to negotiate deeper cuts in both our [nuclear] arsenals.” This is a good idea that should only be welcomed. But nuclear disarmament cannot, and does not, exist in a vacuum. It is a part of a broader political picture, and negotiating partners should take into account their differing security concerns. Otherwise disarmament processes are either doomed to failure, or come to resemble Gorbachev’s disastrous policies of perestroika and “new thinking” in which the Soviet Union made one major concession after another, but got nothing in exchange but ephemeral talks about “new world order”, “globalization” and “acceptance into the club of civilized states”. The size of Russian and American nuclear arsenals were slashed at the end of the Cold War, but in my view no long-term gains in security were achieved by Russia in this process. The U.S. even violated a gentlemen’s agreement that NATO wouldn’t expand to Russia’s borders if the Soviet Union withdrew from Eastern Europe.

It still remains to be seen what the foreign policy of the Obama administration will be and how U.S.-Russian relations will develop. As the saying goes, “hope dies last”, so maybe the Biden speech was not a declaration of future policies simply perpetuating the ones of the previous U.S. administration, but a prelude to more innovative strategies to build better relations between the two countries.

This is a guest post by Dr. Yury Yudin. Yury is a Senior Researcher at UNIDIR and manages the project ‘Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle'.

Photo Credit: 'Reset' by Tomás Rotger on Flickr.