Europe's Audacity of Hope

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The annual Wehrkunde Conference in Munich is now completed, and the trans-Atlantic national security apparatus is abuzz, parsing the keynote speech delivered by Vice President Joe Biden, the most panoramic preview to date of America's new look foreign policy in the Age of Obama.

By all accounts, Biden's carefully-scripted remarks – none of the old off-the-cuff Joe this time out -- fell on willing European ears. Europe's foreign policy leaders lauded its tone, in some cases drawing none-too-diplomatic contrasts with the Bush presidency pronouncements Europe learned to loathe.

As for the message itself brought by Biden in his corporate role as voice of the Obama Administration, familiar outlines were evident. These were the words many in Europe yearned to hear: Yes, Barack Obama's America will be willing to talk – to Iran, and to Russia. Then again, Obama's America will also be willing to ask – for a strengthened European commitment to Afghanistan, for instance. Europe's test – a test that will fall unevenly across the continent – will be whether to simply listen, or to answer with actions in sync with its trans-Atlantic partner.

As for the talk -- or rather the talk about talk, to be precise – Biden had several scripts to choose from in the campaign clip-file. There was the Obama of the early campaign trail, opining in the YouTube debate on an opening to Iran without preconditions or preconceptions – and there was the more nuanced Obama, responding not to the blandishments of Bush policy but to the counter-punch of his intra-party challenger (now Secretary of State Clinton) to condition discussions with Iran on a change of policy on its nuclear program and its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. This Obama, the conveyor of clear-eyed candor expressed in his primary season speech to AIPAC, formed the basis for the Biden script at Wehrkunde. The result – lines that could have been penned for Dick Cheney, delivered direct from Biden's TelePrompTer – was received with approbation by European listeners. They came seeking change they could believe in, and they chose to believe.

So too Biden's more lofty references to Europe's freedom of association, embedded in the portion of the speech dealing with differences with Russia:

"We will not agree with Russia on everything…. We will not recognize 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."

"It will remain our view:" Residing between those lines is the immutable voice of American policy, here announcing a firm reiteration that Europe's easternmost nations should be free to integrate into Western structures -- not simply the EU's economic club, but also NATO's security blanket. The policy beneath the rhetoric implied no pull-back – not for now, at least – on missile defense installation in Central Europe, nor on the extension of NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine that marked the late Bush years, both of which for many Europeans set America on a collision course with Russia. Once again, the Wehrkunde crowd heard in Biden's recitation a welcome note of change, not a grating continuity with the age of Bush. But beneath the poetry, will the policy prove so different?

Every speech, a surface monologue, is in reality a dialogue between speaker and audience; a what-is-said and a what-is-heard. Re-reading the Biden sermon on the Obama scriptures will be an interesting exercise across Europe. As text and subtext sink in, Paris and Berlin are likely to be disillusioned; Warsaw and Prague reassured; Tbilisi and Kiev oddly wondering whether they have heard all this before. 20 years after the fall of the Wall, Europe may indeed be whole and free, but it is less and less of one mind when it comes to expectations from its Atlantic partner.

As Vice President Biden warms to the powers of the TelePrompTer, the Obama Administration leaves its first European encounter with its options open, and its interests intact. What remains now is for Europe to decide whether to believe its ears: Has it heard from this New Look Administration change it can believe in, or continuity of a kind it had hoped to leave behind?

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