Biden Promises Foreign Policy Shifts

In recent years, European leaders at the annual Munich Security Conference have roundly criticized American foreign policy. This year, things were different. Vice President Joe Biden's speech on Saturday unveiled a new caring, consulting and listening U.S. administration, promising sweeping changes in American foreign policy.

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For the past several years, the annual Munich Security Conference has been the scene of trans-Atlantic friction. European leaders used it as a venue to roundly criticize American foreign policy. This year, Vice President Joe Biden attended the forum with a new message. And, as NPR's Rob Gifford reports, that turned the conference into an entirely different affair.

ROB GIFFORD: The annual Munich Security Conference has not always been a happy place in recent years. In 2003, Germany's Joschka Fisher had a go at Donald Rumsfeld. In 2007, it was Russian leader Vladimir Putin criticizing George Bush for unconstrained use of U.S. military force.

By comparison, this year's conference was a veritable love fest. French President Nicolas Sarkozy kept calling Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel my dear Angela, and Vice President Joe Biden's speech on Saturday unveiled a new caring, consulting, listening U.S. administration.

Even the Russians couldn't help noticing a tone of cooperation in the discussion of the possible U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe that Moscow's consistently opposed. Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov.

Mr. SERGEI IVANOV (Deputy Prime Minister, Russia): If we assess the threat jointly and come to the conclusion that the threat is there, we may jointly approach it. We're eager to continue talks on that subject, and I hope it will bring or yield some results.

GIFFORD: Yesterday, Biden met the president of Georgia and seemed to give Moscow yet another conciliatory sign, saying whether Georgia joined NATO was Georgia's decision - this in contrast to the Bush administration's robust support for Georgia's NATO membership, much to Russia's annoyance.

And it was not just Vice President Biden who was presenting a new way of engaging. Chief of U.S. Central Command General David Petraeus was in Munich, too, speaking softly about how to speak softly in Afghanistan.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Chief, U.S. Central Command): First and foremost, our forces and those of our Afghan partners have to strive to secure and serve the population. We have to recognize that the Afghan people are the decisive terrain. A nuanced appreciation of local situations is essential. This requires listening and being respectful of local elders and mullahs. And it also requires, of course, many cups of tea.

GIFFORD: Petraeus is expected to oversee the transfer of up to 30,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan in coming months, as the Obama administration beefs up its military presence. General Petraeus was clear that softer elements of the approach do not mean the U.S. must forego carrying a big stick as well.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Having said that, we must pursue the enemy tenaciously. True irreconcilables again must be killed, captured or driven out of the area, and we cannot shrink from that any more than we can shrink from being willing to support Afghan reconciliation.

GIFFORD: There was no doubt among European observers that something had changed in Washington. Oreka Girreaux(ph) of the European Council on Foreign Relations liked what she heard on Russia and Iran, especially the way the U.S. dealt with the speech by Iran's representative Ali Larijani.

Ms. OREKA GIRREAUX (European Council on Foreign Relations): There was a strong commitment to improve NATO-Russia relations, to improve the EU-Russian relations, and a commitment also to treat Russia, if possible, as a partner. On Tehran, I mean, let's say it openly, the last year the American delegation left the room when Larijani spoke. This year, at least they remained seated. So, this is at least the acceptance that there's a new commitment to listening, and that dialogue should start.

GIFFORD: That doesn't mean there will be no more confrontation, says Girreaux, and the difficult part starts now - turning the rhetoric from the weekend into a more robust relationship that will stand the test of time in the mountains of Afghanistan and on the planes of Eastern Europe.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Munich.

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