For all the assorted domestic and foreign woes weighing down on it, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is still in the relatively sunlit early days when it can afford to plan a few steps ahead. So when Vice-President Joe Biden showed up at the Munich Security Conference with a sunny and soothing speech, his largely European audience should have known other emissaries with a darker message wouldn’t be far behind.
By itself Biden’s was an extraordinary speech, and when he delivered it on Saturday morning to the world’s foreign policy elite in a packed ballroom at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, it was obvious why Barack Obama had chosen him for the No. 2 slot. Biden enhances the credibility of his boss’s foreign policy message simply by being the guy who delivers it. A veteran U.S. senator, he knows the Munich crowd well. He has attended the annual weekend getaway in the Bavarian capital many times. He knows it is a more focused, less ostentatious and arguably more important gathering than the glittering World Economic Forum in Davos. A perfect place for the Obama team to road-test its message to the world.
Biden entered to a standing ovation, paused to engulf Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy representative, in a bear hug, and chatted for long minutes with Henry Kissinger. Then he headed to the podium to deliver a basic message: Obama wants to make America a more deserving partner for its traditional allies.
“America will not torture,” he said. “We will uphold the rights of those we bring to justice. And we will close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.” He opened his kit bag of Helping Words, offering to “engage,” to “listen” and to “consult.” He promised talks with the bellicose regime in Iran, increases to foreign aid and a global environmental strategy. Catnip for European listeners who had waited long years to see the back of George W. Bush.
Biden barely hinted at the quid pro quo that everyone knew was coming. “America will do more—that’s the good news. The bad news is that America will ask more from our partners as well.”
To find out what “more” entailed, the Munich crowd had to wait only a day. The bill was delivered by David Petraeus, the four-star general in charge of the U.S. Central Command and therefore of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Richard Holbrooke, the veteran diplomat who serves as Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“I would be remiss if I did not ask individual countries to examine very closely what forces and other contributions they can provide,” said Petraeus. And if anyone was unsure what might help, Petraeus had brought along a wish list, like a blushing bride who had registered at the Counterinsurgency Boutique. “More intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms,” he said. “More military police, engineers and logistics elements. Additional special-operations forces and civil-affairs units. More lift and attack helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Additional air medevac assets, increases in information operations capabilities, and so on.”
How could this much new effort be needed in a war that is already in its eighth year? It fell to Holbrooke to deliver the grim explanation: much of the work of the first seven years was wasted and counterproductive. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said in the conference’s closing minutes. “The task ahead of us is far, far more difficult than anything that has been said this morning. I have never, in my experience in the U.S. government that started in Vietnam, ever seen anything as difficult as the situation that confronts the countries involved in Afghanistan and Pakistan at this point.”
The “story of Afghanistan,” Holbrooke said, is full of pledges to do more and coordinate better that lead nowhere. In the U.S. government’s foreign-assistance program, “I have never seen anything remotely resembling the mess we have inherited.” He concluded: “In my view it’s going to be much tougher than Iraq.”
The surprise is that many seemed not only prepared for more demands from the U.S. but, in some cases, eager to comply. John Hutton, the glowering British defence minister, said his country would be reinforcing its Afghanistan contingent. He prodded the crowd, which included 40 heads of government, foreign and defence ministers, to do the same: “It is better to volunteer than to be asked—to be absolutely blunt, combat roles, right now, are the premium issue. We kid ourselves if we imagine other contributions, right now, are of the same value. They’re not.”
Talk is cheap at Munich. Indeed, talk is coin of the realm at the security conference, which for 45 years has served as an informal, non-governmental forum for the North Atlantic policy elite to compare notes and brainstorm. But suddenly a lot of countries seemed to be discovering new war-fighting resources where before there had been only embarrassed silence. The Bulgarians said they’d be in for an increased commitment. Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, urged everyone to make sure they didn’t attach bureaucratic strings to their contributions: “He who gives without caveats gives twice.”
The German hosts were more reticent, hinting strongly that Germany will increase only its civilian effort. But French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who cannot resist an urge to showboat, made sure the crowd knew he’d seen Biden’s speech before delivery and then went on to suggest an increased effort won’t be long coming—from Germany as well as France.
The 60th-anniversary summit of NATO heads of government will be held this April in the neighbouring French and German border towns of Strasbourg and Kehl. “It is, no doubt, time to review NATO’s strategy—and for France and Germany to draw a certain number of consequences,” Sarkozy said. “Believe me that between now and April we will try to measure up to the great ambition of this family, which is ours.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was onstage with Sarkozy while he spoke. If what he said surprised or appalled her it would not be the first time, but she gave no sign of it.
So the Obama camp’s brand of earnest candour was a hit with America’s allies in Munich. If the new President’s biggest headache was worrying about the reviews his surrogates would get for their speeches, his problems would be solved. Reality checks arrived via the newspaper headlines and a few of the conference’s most prominent, and controversial, speakers.
On the eve of the conference, Pakistan released A.Q. Khan, a nuclear scientist who stands accused of spreading his weapons know-how to Iran, North Korea and Libya, from house arrest. Kyrgyzstan’s president announced in Moscow that he was ordering the United States to close an air base it uses in his country for operations in Afghanistan. Iran launched a rickety little satellite in orbit, demonstrating its ability to lob nastier payloads at terrestrial targets. The U.S. logged its worst monthly job loss in 16 years, and a few Munich conference veterans, including senators John Kerry and John McCain, had to stay home in Washington this year to bicker over Obama’s economic stimulus package.
The storm clouds outside were matched by the stubborn refusal of Russian and Iranian visitors to join the easy agreements of their North Atlantic counterparts. Biden devoted much of his speech to seeking a new relationship with Russia. There has been a “dangerous drift in relations between Russia and members of our alliance,” Biden said, thanks largely to last year’s shooting war between Russia and Georgia, and to Russia’s willingness to cut off gas and oil exports to its European neighbours when their behaviour displeases.
Biden made a token effort to sound tough. “The United States will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states,” he said. “We will not—will not—recognize a country having a sphere of influence.” But by and large he agreed to disagree with Russia on Georgia—essentially a concession to Moscow—in return for help with Afghanistan.
Sergei Ivanov, the wily Russian deputy prime minister, was pleased at the attention but not eager to make nice too quickly. “I remember early 2000 when we were accused of all the sins in Chechnya,” said Ivanov, who was attending his ninth Munich conference. “This time I did not hear any substantial criticism of Russia.” A new era of co-operation, then? Not so fast. Biden had offered to “press the reset button” with regard to Russia-U.S. relations. Ivanov was unpersuaded. “It is a figure of speech. There is no button that you press to reset.”
Where the Russian was cagey, the Iranian delegate, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, was downright belligerent. He showed up wearing the universal emblem of gentle politicians, a sweater vest, but promptly tore into generations of U.S. administrations. “Everybody is talking about the goodwill of the U.S.,” he said. “But everybody knows in here that the U.S. is the only one who has used nuclear weapons in the world,” a reference to the atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki nearly 64 years ago.
Why were the Americans so obsessed with the prospect of Iranian nukes, Larijani wondered. “The Americans have had no problem with Israel’s nuclear program. Or India. Or Pakistan.” He lamented the American role in the 1953 Iranian coup that replaced an elected government with a pro-Western dictator, U.S. support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, and its support for Israel against Hezbollah in “the shameful 22-day war. Now, with a change of tone and a few media postures, do you honestly expect these pains to go away?”
From merely resentful, Larijani’s remarks veered into the surreal. “I’m not a historian,” he said, “but when it comes to the Holocaust, people can have different views.” That drew an angry rebuttal from French politician Pierre Lellouche, who said denying the Holocaust is a crime in France, as it is in Germany. Larijani seemed surprised. “We don’t have the same sensitivities in Iran.”
After that kind of display it took a mighty effort of will to see any hopeful prospects for relations with Iran. Biden did his best. “We are willing to talk,” he said. “We are willing to talk to Iran, and to offer a very clear choice: continue down your current course and there will be pressure and isolation; abandon your illicit nuclear program and support for terrorism and there will be meaningful incentives.”
This openness drew at least one high-powered endorsement, from Kissinger, the Nixon-era foreign policy guru who seemed to be everywhere at this conference. Differences over Iran were a key point of disagreement during last year’s presidential campaign between Obama and John McCain. Kissinger was a McCain supporter. Which meant, apparently, that he had to spend a lot of time biting his tongue. “I’ve been a friend of John McCain all my life,” he said, before adding, “I have long advocated negotiations with Iran on a broad front.”
Even Larijani interrupted his harangue long enough to offer grudging praise for Obama’s first steps. He noted that the President’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, had visited the region with a stated desire “to listen, not to dictate.” “This is a positive signal,” Larijani allowed.
You take what you can get. “If I only would have had dialogue in my lifetime with easy partners, I wouldn’t, during the Cold War, have many contacts with the East,” said Karsten Voigt, a veteran politician who is in charge of relations with North America in the German Foreign Ministry. “And therefore, to talk with difficult partners—and I have, on a regular basis, had contact with the Iranians and they are difficult—it’s necessary.”
If relations with Iran don’t get much better, the country may yet be handy in pushing Russia and the U.S. together—because both countries are starting to agree that a missile defence against attacks from the general neighbourhood of Iran may yet come in handy.
Until the Georgia war, the greatest source of irritation between the Bush administration and Russia was Bush’s plan to install missile-defence batteries in Poland and the Czech Republic. Vladimir Putin saw the bases as a threat against Russian security and responded with plans to install short-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, directly endangering Poland’s population.
Biden told the Munich audience the Obama administration will keep working on missile defence—but “in consultation with our NATO allies and Russia.” Ivanov said he’d rather see the planned bases in Poland and the Czech Republic scrapped outright, but privately Russian officials welcomed the Americans’ openness to co-operation.
And where was Canada in all this? Not absent, for the first time in a while. Defence Minister Peter MacKay showed up in Munich, making him the first Canadian cabinet minister to attend since the Conservatives were elected in 2006. (Liberal foreign ministers John Manley and Bill Graham both used to attend in their time.)
MacKay is said to be campaigning for the job of secretary-general of NATO, which Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is slated to vacate later this year. Such campaigning, if it takes place, is done sotto voce; European sources interviewed by Maclean’s could not come up with any reliable list of candidates. One senior NATO source said MacKay is highly regarded in the organization for his blunt talk, but as a Canadian with a short CV he has a long way to go in convincing people he can navigate the Byzantine relationship between NATO and the European Union.
Appearing on the same panel as Holbrooke and Petraeus, MacKay pitched Canada as a determined ally that is already implementing the sort of well-coordinated, “whole of government” approach to military and civilian intervention in Afghanistan that the Americans hope to lead.
“We have more to do,” MacKay said, quoting Robert Frost: “Miles to go before we sleep.” He added, “I don’t think we can ever abandon the effort, to have more countries, to have more effort on the ground, until we tip the balance.” And to make sure nobody had any question of his steadfastness, he concluded, “As a country that believes very strongly in this multilateral process, Canada remains very committed.”
What he did not mention, not once, is that the commitment runs until 2011 and that Stephen Harper insists Canada’s military deployment in Afghanistan will substantially end then.
Is that 2011 commitment still firm? MacKay declined a request for an interview. James Appathurai, the NATO spokesman based in Brussels, said he has been told the Obama administration is “looking forward” to the President’s Feb. 19 trip to Ottawa. “They have a number of issues on their agenda. They will share them, of course, with the Canadians; of course it’s not for me to say what they are. But let’s just say they have the trip to Canada firmly in their minds.”