The conventional wisdom is that with a new cold war looming and global conflicts upon us, Barack Obama needed a Vice-President with foreign policy experience. Most establishment pundits buy the view that Joe Biden provides it.
But on one of the key issues relating to US-Russian relations, Biden has been wrong. He has been a fervent champion of NATO expansion, a bipartisan policy whose disastrous consequences we witnessed in the recent and ongoing Russia-Georgia conflict. It is a policy that has done more to damage US-Russian relations than almost any other policy between the two countries.
When Biden traveled to Tbilisi during the conflict in August–presumably to flex and highlight his foreign policy credentials for the Obama campaign–he presumably told Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili of his support for that country’s early admission to NATO. (The New York Times reports that the conflict did in fact boost Biden’s veep prospects.) What does this say about Biden’s foreign policy judgment that he would immediately reward Saakashvili’s reckless behavior with a promise of early admission to NATO?
Doesn’t Biden understand that in backing Georgian admission he would be going against NATO tradition not to admit countries with outstanding territorial conflicts? Or that NATO admission would be opposed by many leading NATO allies ? And that it would almost certainly forfeit any prospect of Russian cooperation on a range of issues–if not bring about Russian counter-measures. Does extending such a promise mean that Biden, along with John McCain, is prepared to take the US to war on behalf of Georgia? Biden’s bombast may have given him satisfaction–and appealed to Saakashvili, a man who precipitated the bloodshed with his US-trained military’s attack on South Ossetia on the night of August 7– but was it the calibrated response we seek in an experienced foreign policy leader who understands importance of reducing, not heightening, geopolitical tensions?
As Ronald Steel reminds us in a judicious and must-read op-ed piece in Sunday’s New York Times, “The first essential step for the leader of the Western alliance is to tone down the bombast and restore a dialogue with Russia….Second, we should shelve loose talk about bringing either Ukraine or Georgia into NATO–at least until we are willing to invite Russia itself.” As Steel reminds us, “NATO is essentially still a cold-war military pact seeking a new identity that it has not yet found. Admitting these two former Soviet Republics would be interpreted by Moscow as anti-Russian provocation –and rightly so. And even if it didn’t provoke a new Cold War, it would create serious tensions within NATO itself.”
Before the consensus emerges that Biden adds “foreign expertise to ticket,” as the New York Times‘s headline this morning declared, shouldn’t we reflect on the nature and quality of expertise and experience? Good judgment, informed experience and valuable expertise would guide leaders to rethink policies like NATO expansion that have jeopardized our national security and damaged US-Russian relations.