U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, left, speaks to the media during a joint press briefing together with Romania's President Traian Basescu, right, in 2009. A trip to the country a decade earlier as a U.S. senator demonstrated his mastery of international relations.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, left, speaks to the media during a joint press briefing together with Romania's President Traian Basescu, right, in 2009. A trip to the country a decade earlier as a U.S. senator demonstrated his mastery of international relations. (XX)

Joe Biden can unify the Democratic Party. And he can beat Donald Trump. The polls show it and few doubt it.

But that’s not why I’m for Mr. Biden. It’s because he’ll be a terrific president of the United States.

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I’ve known former Vice President Biden a little bit for a long time. But I got a chance to see his leadership style up close 20 years ago, in September 1999. I was U.S. ambassador to Romania, and we were dealing with the aftermath of NATO’s successful efforts to stop ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. American officials were stopping in Bucharest to thank the Romanians for their support and to figure out where the nations of the former Yugoslavia were headed in the coming years.

Unlike other visitors, whose approach was helpful but remarkably relaxed, then-Senator Biden was a whirlwind of inquiry from the time he landed at the airport in Bucharest, Romania’s capital. On the 20-minute drive into the city, he quizzed me on Romanian attitudes, the status of various government leaders, and the inside story on Romania’s foreign policy toward Slobodan Milosevic, who was still the autocrat in power next door in Serbia. Because Mr. Biden had known all the major Romanian leaders since before the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted in 1989, the questions were Ph.D. level, not Romania 101.

In his meetings with then-President Emil Constantinescu and others, he thanked them for supporting NATO and then drilled in on Milosevic. How strong did they think he was in Serbia after the war? How did they evaluate the various leaders of the democratic opposition there (whom he asked about name by name, since he knew them personally, too)?

He exuded a passion for helping Serbians move toward a democratic future. I also got a running commentary on his talks with then-President Bill Clinton over how much military force was used during the Kosovo war. In the end, air power and diplomacy won the day for NATO. There was no ground invasion. Not a single U.S. soldier died in combat.

But Mr. Biden was already concerned that U.S. use of precision munitions would create destabilizing fear in China and other countries. He was looking around the next corner.

In most of our meetings, Romanian leaders reiterated their strong interest in joining NATO. At lunch in my house with opposition party leaders, one of them said that NATO membership was important to their country for a reason I’d never heard before.

"If we’re in NATO, we won’t have to worry about NATO attacking Romania over our relations with our Hungarian minority the way you attacked Serbia," he said. "Since Turkey has been in NATO for decades, you let them do what they want with the Kurdish minority."

Mr. Biden, visibly angry, rose from his chair, leaned across the table and said: "If that’s why you want to get into NATO, I’ll make sure you never do!"

Cooler heads assured Senator Biden -- and me -- that the gentleman had misspoken and that Romanians were committed to good relations with their Hungarian minority. And they were right. When the opposition came to power a year later, the Hungarian party supported the new government. In 2004, Romania joined NATO -- with Senator Biden’s support.

What struck me was the frankness and passion Mr. Biden brought to U.S. foreign policy. He knew when to say the right thing in the right way. And the Romanians respected him for it.

The most extraordinary meeting we had was with Petre Roman, then president of the Romanian Senate. He had been prime minister in the early 1990s, so Mr. Biden had met him before. Mr. Biden grilled him on Serbian politics, a subject Mr. Roman knew a lot about.

In fact, the Serbian democratic leader whom Mr. Roman urged the U.S. to work with helped defeat Milosevic in the 2000 elections. Those elections brought pro-Western democrats to power. Mr. Biden asked the right questions of the right guy.

But as we came out of the meeting, Mr. Biden said to me, “What’s that guy so upset about? He looks the way I felt the last time I chaired a Judiciary Committee meeting.” He was referring to 1994, when the Republicans won control of the U.S. Senate, relieving Mr. Biden of his committee chairmanship.

"He’s got some big problem on his mind. Do you know what it is?" he asked me.

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I was amazed. Without knowing the latest inside politics, Mr. Biden had read Senator Roman’s body language and knew he was under incredible stress -- public support for his coalition government was plummeting. Several months later, he brought down the government, replaced the prime minister and took over the foreign minister’s job himself. Mr. Roman’s party ended up surviving the next election but found itself out of power in the opposition.

Mr. Biden has better intuition about other leaders, American or foreign, than any elected official I’ve ever met. That’s a gift he will take to the White House, bringing Americans together and protecting America’s security.

State Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Prince George’s County Democrat, was U.S. ambassador to Romania from 1998-2001. This article is adapted from a version that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2008.

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