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Joe Biden and European Security, CU Issue 71, May 13, 2010

Last week US Vice-President Joe Biden headed to Europe to meet with top European decision-makers. First up was Belgium to meet NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, followed by a speech to the European Parliament and dinner with the 28 members of NATO’s top body, the North Atlantic Council (Foreignpolicy.com, May 5).

Biden’s visit was primarily intended to reassure Europeans about America’s continuing commitment to the alliance with the Old World. It is hardly a secret that, after the initial euphoria produced by Barack Obama’s election, Europe has felt somewhat neglected by the US. The Vice-President sought to shore up the transatlantic relationship and cement European support for key US policy priorities, although no formal proposals or declarations emerged.

The other, more subtle purpose of the trip was to emphasise the Obama Administration’s commitment to a better relationship with Russia. The ‘reset’ has had mixed success, and Mr Biden outlined some proposals to improve ties with Russia as it relates to European security. In this regard, the most interesting ideas to emerge from the trip were contained in an op-ed by Mr Biden published in the International Herald Tribune (IHT, May 6).

Seeking to engage with Russia as well as reassure European states, the Vice-President underlined the “indivisibility of security” in Europe, which is by now diplomatic shorthand for a quid pro quo with Russia: we will include you in security consultations if you abandon your insistence on a sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union.

More specifically, Mr Biden outlined four key points. Firstly, he reiterated America’s commitment to transparency about military forces, particularly nuclear forces. On May 3 the Pentagon announced that it had 5,113 nuclear warheads in its arsenal, as part of an attempt to improve information-sharing on nuclear weapons (Reuters, May 3). Mr Biden made it clear that he expects Russia to do the same, following the ‘new START’ treaty on arms reduction signed in April.

Secondly, he called for “reciprocal limitations on the size and location of conventional forces”, which should be relevant to the present, not the past. This is in line with NATO’s own determination to revive and revise the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which regulates military build-ups (NY Times, April 29).

The pact was suspended in 2007 by Russia, and was dealt a further blow after the Russia-Georgia war in 2008. The Russian protectorates of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (with substantial, unmonitored Russian military garrisons) remain legally recognised as Georgian territory. This makes Russian arguments to remove the Caucasus from the CFE’s equipment ceilings politically unacceptable for NATO members. especially since Russian troop withdrawals from Georgia and Moldova were key to an adapted version of the treaty.

Reviving the CFE would almost certainly founder on these issues, and its progress would also be dependent on non-conventional weapons such as US tactical nuclear warheads in Europe and Washington’s missile-defence shield. Nonetheless, Mr Biden’s implicit reference suggests that resurrecting the treaty is set to become an important topic in the US-Russia relationship. If successful, a new CFE Treaty could have serious positive implications for security in the Caucasus.

Thirdly, Vice-President Biden insisted that Europe and the US must focus on conflicts outside the European space. This seems to be a veiled prod to encourage Europeans to take on more of the ‘heavy lifting’ in NATO, rather than keeping them ensconced on the continent.

Mr Biden’s fourth point was his most interesting. He called for a “more effective conflict-prevention, conflict-management, and crisis-resolution mechanism to defuse crises before they escalate”, such as in the Russia-Georgia war. Specifically, he backed the establishment of an OSCE Crisis Prevention Mechanism which would defuse tensions and, in times of crisis, empower the OSCE to provide humanitarian assistance, monitoring, and diplomatic support for a ceasefire. It would also allow special representatives to be dispatched in case of serious energy disruptions.

This would be a significant addition to the OSCE’s capability. Mr Biden’s suggestion may be a direct response to the chaos in Kyrgyzstan, which unsettled Washington’s military transit centre in the country, and which the OSCE was manifestly unable to prevent or reduce. It also reflects more general criticism of the organisation’s inability to tackle regional flashpoints in recent years.

Yet it is unclear how this Mechanism would function. The OSCE works on a consensus model, and Russia’s veto power was the reason for the termination of its monitoring mission in Georgia in 2009. It seems unlikely that, in the event of a new war, Moscow would permit the OSCE to push for a ceasefire and redeploy observers. The same holds true in other post-Soviet flashpoints – in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, in Moldova, and in Central Asia. Equally, ‘energy representatives’ would have a hard time getting a mandate to mediate in Russia’s periodic ‘gas wars’ with its neighbours.

Fully-fledged reform of the OSCE would probably only emerge from a much broader ‘grand bargain’ between Washington and Moscow on European security issues: missile-defence, the CFE Treaty, NATO enlargement, and Russian policy towards its former Soviet dominions.

This will clearly not be easy. Mr Biden’s ideas are a welcome step in the right direction, and revamping the OSCE is certainly a topic to watch out for in the months ahead. Forging a more functional security system in Europe will be a long process, but the Vice-President’s visit is a sign of quiet reassurance that Washington remains committed to that goal.

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