RFE/RL Interview: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden
October 23, 2009
In an exclusive interview, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with RFE/RL correspondents Brian Whitmore and Abubakar Siddique about the U.S. administration's policy on Russia, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. Biden assured Central and Eastern Europeans of the United States' commitment to the region, and said that the United States will not ignore concerns about democracy in dealing with Iran on its nuclear program.
RFE/RL: Mr. Vice President, thank you for seeing us today. It was just a few months ago, you were in Tbilisi and Kyiv reassuring the Ukrainians and the Georgians that the “reset” with Russia was not going to come at their expense. Here you are in Central Europe doing the same thing again. Despite all the reassuring words that are coming out of the administration right now on this subject, there is a lot of fear that the reset could turn into appeasement in this region.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden: Well, I think I settled that. I don’t believe that is the case now. I think, look, it is totally understandable that, particularly for the generation like mine, in which I spent half my public life as a young man in the midst of the Cold War and the remaining half of my public life in this new reality -- it is understandable that if you are sitting in any one of the Central European or Eastern European capitals, you see the incredible, universal, worldwide obligations the United States has, and you are sitting there and saying, “Now, wait a minute. How can they be focusing on the Korean peninsula? How can they be focusing on China, India, Pakistan, Iran and still have us in mind?” And my message is simple: that is precisely why we need to stay deeply involved in Europe. Because in order for us to meet those obligations, we need a secure, whole, free Europe that is expanding, and we will not do anything... when I made the speech in Moscow, excuse me, in Munich, people in Moscow heard what I said.
We want to set the reset button. But we did not press the erase button, the memory erase button. We made it absolutely clear. I made it clear that there are two things, two principles that were not negotiable: no spheres of influence would we tolerate or be part of, number one, and number two, no veto power on the ability of any nation in any part of Europe or for anywhere in the world, for that matter, to make their own decisions, what alliances or unions they wish to join. And this is a process, but it is understandable that there is so much going on, it is a new administration, and I hope that the reassurance is understood and is taking hold.
RFE/RL: Staying on the subject of Russia, “Banks not tanks” has been one of the phrases that have been batted around to describe Russia’s strategy of buying up strategic assets in Eastern Europe, in particular, as a way to gain political influence in this region. Is the administration concerned about this?
Biden: No. Look, we do not look at Russia and see a zero-sum game here. That’s not how we view this relationship. The truth of the matter is that European countries, eastern, central, western, all have to deal with the reality we all are dealing with, and that is, if not energy independence, [then] not absolute dependence. It is not a healthy thing for any country to be in a position where their only source comes from a single source. We outlawed monopolies in the United States a long time ago, and so it is in the interest of everyone, and I would argue even in the interest of Russia, for there to be competition.
And that is why I think, for example, the Czechs are pushing hard for the European Union to begin to decide on alternative routes for energy that could come out of the “stans” [Central Asia]. There are a number of opportunities dealing with gas and oil. That’s why we are all working so very hard on alternative as well as renewable energy sources. So, you know, my experience has been in my 37 years in national public office that those concerns about any one nation being able to buy up assets of countries have proven never to be within their capacity. This world is too flat, it is too integrated, it is too complicated for anyone to be able to do that in the first place. But energy diversity is in the interest of the Europeans, it is in our interest, and I would argue it is in Russia’s interest.
RFE/RL: Moving on to Afghanistan, Mr. Vice President, today’s issue of “The Economist” follows up on a lot of rumors in Kabul and Washington suggesting that your special regional envoy, Richard Holbrooke, is not welcome in Afghanistan. Can you comment on this?
Biden: It’s not true. That’s my comment.
RFE/RL: And it is well known that the White House has an uneasy relationship with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, but it is almost certain that he will win in the run-off. What will he need to do to gain your trust?
Biden: Well, look. He has to gain the trust of the Afghan people, not our trust. The question is the trust of the Afghan people, and I think he has begun that process by agreeing to a run-off, by saying, now I’m paraphrasing, it’s close to a quote, he said it is consistent with the Afghan Constitution, and he is looking forward to it and doing it. This is about the Afghan people. This is not about us.
RFE/RL: On Pakistan, do you see progress against extremism there, given that insecurity seems to increase after every new military offensive in that country?
Biden: The answer is I do. I think that the fact of the matter is that the new military operation is in direct response to the real, legitimate threats they see. Look, once the Afghan Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud and others, along with some help from Al-Qaeda moved into Swat Valley, 60 to 80 [kilometers] from Islamabad, it got everybody's attention. You see, for the first time, you saw both [Pakistani President Asif Ali] Zardari and [opposition leader Nawaz] Sharif agreeing on a common policy relative to how to deal with this issue.
The [Pakistani] military is reacting appropriately, and they face a very difficult problem, but I would argue the opposite. It is not the action of the military that has produced the reaction of the jihadis and the radical Islamicists there. It has been that the military has had to react to the overreaching on the part of the TTP [Tehrek-e Taliban Pakistan or Movement of the Pakistani Taliban] and others, the Haqqani network, and others in the region. And so we look at their actions as being appropriate.
We are prepared to be of whatever assistance they want us to be, not in terms of American forces, but in providing for their ability to deal with that. And it is a real, serious concern that the Pakistani government, the Pakistani military, and the Pakistani opposition have become seized with. My understanding is, for the first time in a considerable amount of time, that a significant portion of the Pakistani population realizes that there has to be a response to these horrific actions being taken by extremists, blowing up people and...taking over large swaths of territory. So it is for Pakistan to decide, but it seems to me the action they are taking is consistent with their national interest.
RFE/RL: Shifting gears to the South Caucasus, Mr. Vice President, the geopolitical landscape in that region, which is increasingly important for us as an energy transit route, has changed dramatically in the last year since the Russia-Georgia war. Russia’s consolidating its position in the occupied territories in Georgia [Abkhazia and South Ossetia], Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks are actually gaining steam, Turkey and Armenia have opened up their border. There seems to be a lot of opportunity on the one hand, but a lot of danger on the other. Can you talk a little bit about both -- what does the administration see here?
Biden: I think you’ve described it accurately. I’m always quoting William Butler Yeats’ famous poem “Easter Sunday, 1916” about the first rising in Ireland. He used a line in that poem that better describes the situation in the Caucasus and the world today than it did Ireland then. He said, “All’s changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.” It presents great danger and great opportunity. And that’s what great nations and great alliances do. They take advantage of, in a positive way, these changes to make them opportunities. This is an opportunity. I compliment Secretary Clinton -- you saw what’s happened between Turkey and Armenia, as you mentioned, you see what’s happening now in other long and festering disputes...
What’s happening, from my perspective, is that people in the region are beginning to understand their self-interest lies in greater cooperation now. Not out of love and affection, but out of necessity and opportunity. And at the same time, Europe is waking up -- I shouldn’t say waking up, I don’t mean it in a critical sense -- Europe is beginning to focus on how, in fact, they can play a constructive role in providing for access to their markets of the great natural resources that rest there.
This is going to be a very difficult period. It is fraught with danger, but I would argue it’s fraught with more opportunity than danger. And I see more positive things happening than negative things happening. But this is, as my grandfather used to say, this requires a lot of skill and a lot more luck. So we’re working with our friends in Turkey, we’re working with our friends in Europe, we’re working with the various states in Central Europe and the Caucasus that are dealing with a real transition here.
Let me put it another way. Ten years from now, where we are...are in that region of the world will be the real measure and test that our grandchildren are going to apply as to whether or not we succeeded in making a real change in the world in this 21st century. So I think everyone’s seized with the consequence of not making progress in that region of the world. Therefore, because so many are focused on it, I’m more hopeful than I am pessimistic.
RFE/RL: Even given Russia’s stance right now?
Biden: Even given Russia’s stance. Russia, like the United States, like all countries, is responding to a changed world. Not through anyone’s fault. We’re at one of those inflection points in history, and Russia is deciding on its new identity, its new role. We think Russia is a major power, a major player, and could be a major force for positive progress.
But Russia is going through, just like we are, dealing with difficult economic times, dealing with a political system that is emerging... Let me put it this way. I look at Russia with eyes wide open, as a realist. And my expectation is that Russia will decide over the next decade that its interest lies in more integration rather than what some in Russia seem to be thinking may be a different course. So we just have to keep the dialogue going.
But there are certain things that are not up for compromise with us. And that is the notion of a sphere of influence, and the notion of being able to veto. But you know, these are changing times, and it requires us, as the president says, to talk, but also be realistic. And I still think there is more hope than there is danger.
RFE/RL: Mr. Vice President, one last question on Iran. Some Iranians argue that your administration might ignore concerns about democracy and human rights while negotiating with Tehran on the nuclear issue. How do you address such concerns?
Biden: We never have, and we never will [ignore such concerns]. Look at our track record, and the track record of those who people this administration. That is not who we have been in our past incarnation as senators and governors and members of administrations. It’s not who we are.
The message that I delivered here in Central Europe -- it sounds almost corny to say it -- is: nothing about you without you. Nothing about you without you. We are not going to sell anyone out or any democratic forces out because at the end of the day, that is not in our interests. It is counterproductive to our long-term interests.
But we also know that we cannot dictate democratic outcomes. You’ve got to grow institutions. Elections a democracy doesn’t make. An election is a necessary precondition, but not sufficient. So we believe the bulk of the people of Iran are friendly toward the United States. They are not hostile. And they’re going through a difficult period of deciding how to deal with their own government right now.
But it is in the interests of the world, it is in the interests of the people of Iran, it is in the interests of the people of Europe that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, not merely for the threat it may pose, less to us than to Europe and other parts of the world, but because of the cycle it may begin to generate, in terms of expansion of nuclear states. I’ve been working my whole career as a U.S. senator and a vice president to put that genie back in the bottle [rather] than to expand it. And the most destabilizing thing that could occur in terms of the spread of nuclear weapons would be the impact of a nuclear Iran on Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and the list goes on.
So it matters, but in the process of us discussing Iran’s future nuclear activities with our European partners, Russia, China, we don’t have any intention nor has it crossed our minds that we would sell out any democratic forces.
RFE/RL: Thank you, Mr. Vice President.
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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