PRESIDENT Obama is supposed to set U.S. foreign policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is supposed to carry it out and, as the specialist, may add a few wrinkles of her own.
If that's the way it's supposed to be, Vice President Joe Biden's contribution as a third overseas signal-caller is of marginal utility in the foreign policy arena, as a recent discordant volley in relations with Russia made clear.
Earlier this month, Mr. Obama had a reasonably successful visit to Russia. He spent time with President Dmitry A. Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, addressed the Russian people in various forums, and did his best to refocus U.S.-Russian relations that had been left in a haggard state after the latter years of the Bush administration. So far, so good.
Last week, Mr. Biden visited two sensitive Russian neighbors, Ukraine and Georgia. Whether it should or not, Russia considers those states as still part of its sphere of influence, even though both are independent. Neither is a member either of NATO or the European Union, membership in which would put them in roughly the same category as the Baltic states, Bulgaria, or Romania.
Russia's interest is only one reason why neither Ukraine nor Georgia has been taken into the Western European fold. The other is that both are a mess politically and economically. In spite of its Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukraine remains sharply divided into political factions that have a hard time cooperating. Georgia, which carried out its Rose Revolution in 2003, has the same problem, and from time to time has come perilously close to civil war, centering in part around controversial President Mikheil Saakashvili.
So, on Mr. Biden's visit, he praises both countries to the sky, falls just short of promising them eternal protection from their big neighbor, and then takes a sharp crack at Russia. He spoke to the Wall Street Journal of Russia's "shrinking population base" and "withering economy," then said Russia is "in a situation where the world is changing and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable."
The Russians' reaction to Mr. Biden's remarks was, basically, what is going on? Which approach - Mr. Biden's or Mr. Obama's - is U.S. policy? It was predictable that Mr. Biden, as a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would have strong views on foreign policy. At the same time, he is vice president now, not president or secretary of state.
America does not need two or three different foreign policies. A more positive use of Mr. Biden's time might be in trying to help Mr. Obama get his health-care bill through the Senate, where Mr. Biden can preside and where he spent 36 years before becoming vice president.