MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden promised a sharp break from the go-it-alone policies of the Bush era in a major speech on Saturday, saying it was time to “reset” Washington’s ties with Russia and talk to Iran.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, an annual gathering of leaders and defense experts, Biden said the new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama was determined to “set a new tone” in Washington and with its allies.
In the wide-ranging 25-minute address, Biden focused on relations with Moscow, badly strained by Russia’s brief war last year with Georgia and U.S. plans to put a missile shield in central Europe.
“The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our Alliance,” Biden said in the first major foreign policy speech by the new administration.
“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,” he said.
Biden conceded that Washington and Moscow would not agree on everything, citing the Georgia conflict and referring to Russia’s resistance to its neighbors joining NATO.
“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,” Biden said. “But the United States and Russia can disagree and still work together where our interests coincide and they coincide in many places.”
In the audience as Biden spoke were the leaders of Germany and France as well as the deputy prime minister of Russia — all countries that clashed with former President George W. Bush over his invasion of Iraq six years ago.
At this same conference in 2003, German foreign minister Joschka Fischer stared down Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, telling him he was “not convinced” by the U.S. case for war.
The atmosphere this year has been far less tense.
European countries broadly welcomed Obama’s election and Biden’s presence at a conference normally attended by the U.S. defense secretary sent an important signal to Europe that the Obama administration was keen to rebuild relations.
“We will engage. We will listen. We will consult. America needs the world, just as I believe the world needs America,” Biden said.
In a jibe at the policies of Bush, he vowed to end torture, close the Guantanamo military prison in Cuba and advance democracy “not through its imposition by force from the outside, but by working with moderates” in foreign governments.
Biden urged a united effort by the international community to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program, which the West believes is a cover to build an atomic bomb and Tehran insists is for the peaceful generation of electricity.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Sarkozy threatened, before Biden’s speech, to introduce new, tougher sanctions against Tehran if it did not meet western demands.
“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,” Biden said.
But while Biden promised to consult and listen more to allies, he also said Washington would ask for more from them, for example by taking in inmates from Guantanamo, which Obama has said will be closed within a year.
“America will do more. That’s the good news. The bad news is that America will ask for more from our partners as well.”
Biden also stopped short of promising a review of U.S. missile shield plans, as some had speculated before the conference and as Moscow has demanded.
“We will continue to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven to work and cost effective,” he said, adding that it would be done in consultation NATO allies and Russia.
Moscow has sent contradictory signals over what kind of relationship it wants with the new administration — first suspending the deployment of missiles on its Polish border, and then appearing to engineer the closure of an important U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan.
(Additional reporting by Kerstin Gehmlich, David Brunnstrom)
Writing by Noah Barkin and Ross Colvin; Editing by Angus MacSwan