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Joe Biden's tough love diplomacy

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Tbilisi

Joe Biden speaks after receiving an award from Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili during a reception in Tbilisi, Georgia, 22 July 2009
Mr Biden backed Ukraine's and Georgia's ambitions to join Nato

On foreign trips, US Vice-President Joe Biden looks like a man who is really enjoying himself.

His predecessor, Dick Cheney, could - at best - muster a rather sinister-looking grin.

But Mr Biden just never stops smiling.

He smiled as he shook the hands of a never-ending stream of Ukranian and Georgian politicians. And it looked genuine - not the usual diplomatic grab and grin.

Broad smiles

He even appeared to take a delight in the long list of ceremonial duties - like inspecting the guard of honour, or planting a tree at a memorial garden.

And - like any tourist - he enjoyed a bit of local colour. On an impromptu visit to a Kiev pub he waxed lyrical about Ukrainian women, calling called them "the most beautiful in the world".

Despite having spent most of his life in the US Senate, Mr Biden can still convey the impression of being a "regular guy".

But on his travels to Georgia and Ukraine there has also been another side to the vice-president. A steely side that shows he can be tough, even with his friends.

Teddy Roosevelt famously defined American diplomacy as "speak softly and carry a big stick". Mr Biden has his own doctrine: smile broadly and give them a prod.

America is not about to abandon Georgia or Ukraine, but nor will it use them as bargaining chips to appease Moscow.

In Ukraine and Georgia he was among friends not enemies. So there was no need to prod too hard.

Ukraine's President, Viktor Yushchenko, helped bring about the Orange Revolution. Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili was instrumental in his country's "Rose Revolution".

Both men were at the vanguard of breaking from the bonds of communism and old-style Soviet corruption.

The US vice-president smiled as he reminisced about the strides his friends had made. He was full of admiration for the way they had inspired the world (they love their technicolour revolutions in America).

And after he had heaped on the praise, old Joe stuck one in the ribs. He made clear that both countries were in danger of losing their way.

Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko is now a deeply unpopular president. His enthusiasm to join Nato is not shared by his people. The country's economy has taken a dive.

Mr Yushchenko may have once been poisoned by his enemies - his face still bears the scars - but now he is part of the poison that is damaging his own political system.

Shiny palace

In a speech in Kiev, Mr Biden accused his friends of posturing. He told them in no uncertain terms that they were behaving like children.

Show the same political maturity as the rest of the population, he chided. Mr Biden managed to smile as he did it, but this was the same as talking softly while carrying a big stick.

Tblisi, Georgia, would provide an even greater challenge.

Mikhail Saakashvili, or Misha to his friends, had not only rolled out the red carpet, he had brought on the dancing girls (the traditional variety), wheeled out the orchestra and bestowed on his "dear friend Joe" Georgia's highest honour - a glitzy medal.

Mr Biden continued to smile, but he was not seduced.

Mr Biden addresses the Georgian parliament

Perhaps the Georgian president's shiny new palace signalled that something might be amiss - one of Mr Saakashvili's opponents has dubbed it "Caligula's Palace".

His "good friend Joe" was here to tell some plainer home truths.

In a speech to the Georgian parliament, Mr Biden listed Georgia's remarkable achievements - but then came the poke.

The government must be transparent, he urged, before stressing the importance of a free press and issuing a warning that no military option will re-unite Georgia with its separated territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But the toughest message of all was for America's old adversary Russia.

The Obama administration has promised to "reset" relations with Moscow. But this trip showed that it will not be at any cost.

Washington is not about to abandon Georgia or Ukraine, but nor will it use them as bargaining chips to appease Moscow.

Vice President Biden rejected outright Russia's claim to a "sphere of influence" over its neighbours.

Better ties with Moscow would not come at Georgia or Ukraine's expense, the vice president repeated time and again.

And the US would support both countries' bids for Nato membership, if that was what they wanted.

This trip was an attempt to prod some allies in the right direction. But more importantly it set out a few red lines for Russia.



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SEE ALSO
US backs Georgia's Nato ambitions
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Biden pledges support for Georgia
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Ukraine 'must choose own allies'
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Georgia president unveils reforms
21 Jul 09 |  Europe
Hopes curtailed for US-Georgia visit
22 Jul 09 |  Europe
Afghan war is 'worth the effort'
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