Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent Thursday at NATO headquarters in Belgium, where the U.S. and its allies agreed to revive high-level talks with Russia.
Clinton also proposed holding an international meeting on Afghanistan — and said she expected the participants would include Iran.
Clinton used her first trip to NATO as secretary to make clear that the Obama administration is ready to listen and consult with allies as the U.S. finalizes its review on how to deal with both Afghanistan and Pakistan. She also raised an idea that many see as an opening to Iran.
"We presented the idea of what is being called a big tent meeting with all of the parties who have a stake and interest in Afghanistan," she said. "If we move forward with such a meeting, it is expected that Iran would be invited as a neighbor on Afghanistan."
Clinton suggested the meeting would take place on March 31, and foreign ministers from donor nations, countries with troops in Afghanistan, and ones that border it could all take part. The Netherlands is offering to host it — though U.S. officials say there have been no decisions yet on the specifics.
After a long day of talks, the NATO foreign ministers did agree to revive the NATO-Russia Council — which was suspended after Russia's war in Georgia last year. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said foreign ministers will meet soon after the NATO summit next month. He said not talking to the Russians is not an option — though he said there are lingering concerns about Moscow's behavior.
"There is strong agreement that the NATO-Russia Council is not a fair weather body ... it is, in other words, a forum where you discuss subjects where you fundamentally disagree and areas where you can work together. ... And one area where we disagree ... is Ossetia and Abkhazia," he said.
These are the breakaway regions in Georgia, where Russia is building up its military bases. Secretary Clinton said NATO allies must never recognize the breakaway territories or Russia's concept of a sphere of influence. She also made clear that the alliance should keep its doors open to Georgia and Ukraine and help them meet NATO standards.
Even with that strong language, a State Department official had to negotiate in the hallways to convince some of the newer NATO allies, like Lithuania, to go along with the decision to restart high-level talks with Russia. Clinton seemed to enjoy the diplomatic dialogue.
"I thought it was absolutely invigorating to have the kind of true debate that exists among friends and allies over such issues," she said.
She'll be able to sound out her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday evening.
A top State Department official, speaking privately, said that the atmosphere between the U.S. and Russia is improving under the Obama administration. Now it's time to translate that into cooperation on issues like Iran and missile defense.