Thursday, February 26, 2009

Let's Try Talking

Major powers favor reconciliation over confrontation at the 45th Munich Security Conference The annual Munich Security Conference opened on February 6. Although the conference was informal, it still became a focus of the international community-not only because three major powers, the United States, Russia and the European Union (EU), had serious differences on several issues in 2008, but also because it was the first major international event for the new U.S. administration under President Barack Obama. GATHERING IN MUNICH: Participating countries display a rare flexibility in their positions at the 45th Munich Security Conference held in Germany on February 6-8 (XINHUA/AFP) The Obama administration treated the conference as a stage on which to present its new diplomatic theory and global strategy, sending a strong delegation headed by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Biden's speech at the conference had an unprecedented tone of humility from a U.S. leader. He told the audience that the United States was going to engage, listen and consult. "America needs the world, just as I believe the world needs America," he said.

The top theme at the conference was U.S.-Russian relations. During the past eight years of the Bush administration, the U.S.-Russian relations had fallen to a low point.
At the conference, Biden sent a positive message to Russia. "It's time, to paraphrase President Obama, to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should work together." Biden pointed out that Moscow and Washington share many interests, for example, in maintaining stability in Afghanistan and reining in nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. Russia quickly echoed these sentiments. Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said that Russia welcomed the U.S. Government's expressed desire to amend their bilateral ties, and is ready to cooperate with the United States in every field. In a meeting on February 8, Biden told Ivanov that Washington would revaluate its missile defense plans and exchange views with Russia as well as the EU countries.

The "reset" message reflected the Obama administration's new diplomatic theory, which is quite different from that of his predecessor. It at least shows that the United States will not stubbornly maintain its unilateral policies anymore.

But Biden also made it clear that Obama has no intention of compromising the country's strategic interests. "We will not agree with Russia on everything," he said. "For example, the United States will not, will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. 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." These comments struck at Russia's core interests. Thus the ice between Washington and Moscow will not thaw easily.

The second focus of the conference was Afghanistan, where Obama recently authorized the deployment of an additional 17,000 American troops in an effort to reverse the deteriorating situation there. The United States used the conference as an opportunity to persuade NATO members to play more important roles in Afghanistan and take more responsibility. Biden said new U.S. policy in Afghanistan must seek support from related parties, and the policy should be a full strategy in which all sides jointly shoulder responsibility.

NATO members reacted in different ways. Britain was favorable, while Germany was reluctant. German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said NATO could not rely on military measures alone to guarantee the success of its peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan. He called for close cooperation between Europe and the United States to strengthen civil reconstruction there. In the meantime, Afghanistan did not applaud NATO's plan to increase troop levels. Afghan President Hamid Karzai publicly condemned NATO troops in Afghanistan for contributing to a high civilian casualty rate-more than 2,000 in 2008, a 40 percent increase year on year-and called on the international community to help Afghanistan train its army and police force.
The third theme of the conference was Iran's nuclear ambitions. "We will be willing to talk to Iran, and to offer a very clear choice," Biden said in his speech. "Continue down your current course and there will be pressure and isolation; abandon the illicit nuclear program and your support for terrorism and there will be meaningful incentives." Iran had also sent representatives to the conference, where remarks by Iran and the United States appeared less critical of each other and more cautiously conciliatory. Both sides expressed their wish to negotiate without preconditions. Direct contact is becoming more likely.

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