For European leaders, the upcoming Munich Security Conference is the first opportunity they'll have to see if the new US administration is really looking for change.
US foreign policy will be the theme of Vice President Joe Biden's first major speech
The Munich Security Conference has become one of the most important meetings of the year for politicians and power brokers, who gather to listen to public speeches and to engage in back-room politicking. More than 300 high-level officials are expected to attend the conference, which starts Friday, Feb. 6, and runs until Sunday.
Thorny issues such as the ongoing fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear ambitions and the resurgent animosity between Russia and the West are expected to dominate the agenda. The conference will have its fair share of political heavyweights including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Yet it will be US Vice President Joe Biden who will likely take the center stage at the conference, which is viewed by many as the first test of US President Barack Obama's new administration. Biden, a former veteran Democratic lawmaker and past chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will use the Munich gathering to make a "major" speech about the new US administration's defense and foreign policy, according to a conference organizer.
Iran remains defiant
The US suspects Iran of trying to build nuclear weapons
Probably the biggest amount of speculation surrounds whether Biden's team will make some overture towards Iran, with which it severed diplomatic ties 30 years ago. During his election speech, Obama said he was willing to engage in diplomacies with countries whose leaders would "unclenched their fist," thought to be a reference to Iran.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also seems open to dialogue, unexpectedly sending a letter congratulating Obama after his election victory in November.
Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani, a former lead negotiator on the nuclear issue, confirmed he will be attending the conference in Munich, but ruled out the possibility of talking with US delegates. He also made it clear that Iran still has no intention of giving up its nuclear program. If the international community wants to talk about nuclear issues it must "give up its preconditions," Larijani said this week.
Russia wants missile plan shelved
The conference is also seen as a chance for the US and Russia to begin reconciling. Bilateral relations became severely strained under former presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin whose rhetoric had many in Europe worried about the start of a new Cold War.
A major source of disagreement was the US decision to deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. The move enraged Putin, who saw it as a security threat, and Russia responded by threatening to deploy short-range missiles near its border with Poland.
Obama has indicated that he might be willing to scrap the missile program, something which led Russia to say it will re-think its Iskander missile deployment.
"Russia does not need to place Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad if a US missile defence shield is not going to put fear into eastern Europe," an unnamed Russian official was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.
Arms control a likely topic
Yet the missile defense issue is not the only area of disagreement between the US and Russia. The war that briefly flared up between Russia and Georgia last summer remains a major concern to European diplomats, which was seen by many as part of a larger power struggle between Russia and the West.
Fighting between Russia and Georgia caused many to flee
The conference is also expected to take up the topic of arms control, as an important Cold War-era pact expires at the end of 2009. The START treaty committed the US and Russia to cutting the number of missiles and strategic bombers and Obama has made it clear he wants a new treaty to replace it.
"The prospects for forward movement are reasonably good because we now have an administration in Washington which actually believes in arms control," Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution told Reuters news agency.
NATO has also signaled that it wants a new start with Russia, despite differences over eventual NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.
Late last month, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he planned to use the Munich Security Conference to "re-engage at a political level with Russia."
"I hope it will be the first step in a fresh approach to NATO-Russia relations," he said.
US to push for more troops in Afghanistan
Vice President Biden is widely expected to use the meeting to push America's European allies to expand their role in Afghanistan. Obama has pledged to make Afghanistan a cornerstone of his security policy, promising to beef up the US troop presence there while reducing US forces in Iraq.
The US would like more help from European troops in Afghanistan
There are plenty of signs that the effort to eliminate the Taliban and end violence in Afghanistan is not going well. A report released by the US Defense Department this week shows that insurgent violence is on the rise across the country and that international forces did not have the troops and resources they needed in the country's south.
Obama has been asked to send as many as 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, which would nearly double the US force there. Obama has made no secret that he wants Germany and other European countries to increase their involvement in the NATO-lead peacekeeping mission, something which his allies have been reluctant to do.
Germany currently has around 3,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Their role is restricted to peacekeeping, rebuilding and training missions, and they are banned from participating in the heavy fighting in southern and eastern Afghanistan.