The Vice-President of the United States, Joe Biden, is famous for his gaffes. From time to time, Biden says things that would make people scratch their heads incredulously: “What did good ol' Joe have in mind?” For example, in one of his interviews last year, Biden decided to compliment the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to Biden, at the outset of the Great Depression of 1929, Roosevelt “got on the television” and honestly told to the American people what was going on in the country. The problem with this Biden’s narrative was that in 1929, Roosevelt wasn’t yet elected president, and TV wasn’t invented either.
Having become Vice-President (and having confused, on Inauguration Day, the name of the Supreme Court judge who administered his oath), Biden didn’t stop “gaffing”, forcing the White House to regularly intervene.
So when at the conclusion of his July trip to Ukraine and Georgia, Biden gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal, the eyebrows of many analysts and pundits went up again. And for a good reason indeed. Only three weeks before, Biden’s boss, President Barack Obama, told in Moscow that the United States was interested in a “strong, peaceful, and prosperous Russia.” Yet speaking with the Wall Street Journal, Biden asserted that the U.S. national interest will be better served with Russia weakened by the economic crisis (and allegedly more compliant because of that).
The White House intervened again and dispatched Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to repair the damage. Speakingat a talk show, Clinton essentially disavowed Biden. However, calling Russia in passing a “great power”, Clinton reminded the audience that it was Biden who first, in the Obama administration, called for a “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations.
Only time will tell what Biden’s newspaper escapade really was: one of his usual gaffes or a manifestation of something potentially more troubling. For example, that inadvertently or not, Biden spelled out not a “facade”, but the real Obama administration’s attitude towards Russia. As Russians would say: “What Obama has in mind, Biden has on the tip of his tongue” ("Что у Обамы на уме, то у Байдена на языке").
One thing is clear in any case: if Biden’s shot against the official line might have been surprising to some, then the very fact of his steady anti-Russian sentiments could have not. Everyone in Washington knows of Biden’s long (and going way back to the times of the Cold War) record of Senate resolutions accusing Russia in every imaginable sin and calling for a tough stance against Moscow. Many of those resolutions were co-authored by Biden with his Senate buddy, John McCain, last year’s Republican presidential candidate (and himself a veteran of the Cold War in good standing). In August 2008, Biden and McCain led voices in the Senate that, despite all the facts on the ground, blamed Russia for the tragic events in South Ossetia.
Earlier, back in 2002, outraged by Russian restrictions on the import of U.S. poultry, Biden demandedto punish Russia with trade sanctions. Biden’s outrage had a simple explanation: the state of Delaware which Biden represents in the U.S. Senate is a major poultry producer, and Russia’s actions threatened Delaware farmers with losses.
A natural question arises: to which extent can Biden’s anti-Russian views influence the Obama administration’s policy toward Russia? Could Biden’s negative “aura” become a permanent fixture in the Washington-Moscow dialogue?
This concern seems to carry additional weight given the fact that Biden is widely considered a foreign policy expert; in fact, he has repeatedly served as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When Obama announced, last year, his choice of Biden as his running mate, many concluded that a novice in international affairs, as he was, Obama would use Biden as his major adviser on the topic.
Besides, memories of the previous power “tandem” of President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney are still fresh. Immense influence exerted by Cheney on the Bush administration’s foreign policy, especially during the first term, doesn’t seem to have precedents in the history of the American presidency. Many would agree that it was Cheney who was primarily responsible for bringing U.S.-Russian relations to their lowest point since the Cold War.
And yet, careful analysis of the job distribution in Obama’s White House leads to the conclusion that Biden’s influence on the U.S. policy toward Russia will be limited, if not minimal. Here is why.
Cheney was able to hijack the foreign policy agenda of the Bush administration, first, because of Bush’s striking incompetence, and second, due to the weakness of Bush’s both Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. In this respect, two things are absolutely clear: Obama isn’t Bush (to say the very least), and Hillary Clinton won’t tolerate anyone, including Biden, stepping on her turf.
In addition, Obama’s appreciation of Biden’s foreign policy credentials notwithstanding, the president is also acutely aware of the fact that Biden has spent almost 40 years in the Senate and knows like no one else the Washington political kitchen. All signals coming out of the White House indicate that Obama is going to use Biden as his right-hand man in the major political battles, be it Iraq, Afghanistan or, say, health-care reform. Granted, Biden’s opinion on every policy decision, including U.S.-Russia relations, will be taken into account, but for as long as these relations don’t enter a state of crisis (and let’s hope this won’t happen), Biden’s participation will be minimal at best. It’s telling that the vice-president wasn’t included in the bilateral presidential commission established by presidents Obama and Medvedev to facilitate the U.S.-Russia dialogue.
Who then will be defining U.S. policy toward Russia? Hillary Clinton is an obvious choice given the nature of her job. As such, she will also be co-coordinating (along with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov) the bilateral presidential committee. Then, there is National Security Adviser, James Jones, whose trademark low-key profile makes it difficult, at this point, to understand his role in defining U.S. foreign policy course. Not to be discounted is U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who advised Obama on international issues when he ran for president. Having sent Rice to the U.N., Obama has unexpectedly elevated her status into a Cabinet position, making Rice report both to him and Clinton simultaneously.
It is getting increasingly clear that the only thing that Obama won’t let happen is that someone in his administration becomes the dominant player in the foreign policy arena. Like Henry Kissinger was in the Nixon administration or Zbigniew Brzezinsky in Carter’s. No, the only person in charge of all major foreign policy decisions will be Obama and no one else.
Obviously, Obama will still need advisers. Interestingly, it appears that both Kissinger and Brzezinsky belong to a circle of Obama’s informal foreign affairs advisers on a broad range of topics, including U.S.-Russia relations. It may turn out the opinions of both on perspectives of the U.S.-Russia dialogue would carry more weight than the ones of the members of the Obama “official” foreign policy team.
But what then do Kissinger and Brzezinsky think about Russia? Well, this is already a different story.