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Analysis

After Asia pivot, U.S. turns back to old allies in Europe

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington February 22, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

WASHINGTON: After much talk about a US pivot to Asia, signs of a revived American interest in Europe abound, reassuring Europeans worried about their status as Washington's closest allies.

Barack Obama, who has billed himself as "America's first Pacific president," seems to have taken a fresh look at the Old Continent during his second term, launching negotiations on an ambitious transatlantic free trade deal.

Obama's new Secretary of State John Kerry departs Sunday on his first official trip to four European capitals before heading to the Middle East. His predecessor Hillary Clinton had chosen Asia for her maiden overseas tour.

And when Vice President Joe Biden addressed high-ranking officials, ministers and top military brass at the Munich Security Conference three weeks ago, he assured Europeans that Washington still values the transatlantic ties.

"President Obama and I continue to believe that Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement with the rest of the world and is the catalyst for our global cooperation," he said.

Nicholas Siegel, a scholar with the German Marshall Fund think tank in Washington pointed to a "real re-emphasis of the transatlantic relationship."

Tyson Barker, director of transatlantic relations at the Bertelsmann Foundation North America, said that during Obama's first term "the fascination with Asia was palpable and it permeated all of their strategic thinking."

Now the president acknowledges the need "to consolidate and retro-fit some of our legacy relationships," he added.

A year ago, the White House pressed Europe to combat its sovereign debt crisis, fearing that a financial meltdown on the other side of the Atlantic would drag down the US economy ahead of the presidential election.

As markets have calmed in response to action by eurozone governments and the European Central Bank, Washington appears to have turned its attention to opportunities that lie in the transatlantic realm.

Facing a slow recovery and high unemployment, Obama announced in his State of the Union address earlier this month that talks on a "transatlantic trade and investment partnership" that would create the world's largest free trade area.

William Galston of the Brookings Institution called the multi-trillion-dollar trade deal a "potentially game-changing policy" that could boost economic growth and create jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.

"The focus on China's surge during the past decade has obscured the continuing strength of Europe and the United States, and the continuing importance for each other," he wrote in a recent op-ed.

In times of fiscal belt-tightening at home, the United States also hopes that Europe will assume more responsibility on the international scene, especially on its southern flank in North Africa.

"We are entering an era where the US is looking for ever more European burden sharing in international affairs," said Siegel, calling the French military intervention in Mali a "promising sign."

But Siegel stressed that "some of the complaining and some of the angst" of Europeans about the so-called pivot to Asia were overstated.

"If you look at it, the US and Europe have cooperated in the past years very closely on a range of issues," he said, citing the ouster of Libya's strongman Moamer Kadhafi, the conflict in Syria and the Iranian nuclear program.

"What has been missing a bit was the public side."

Kerry's trip might make up for some of the lack of attention Europeans felt over the past few years.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle hailed Kerry's visit to London, Berlin, Paris and Rome as "an important transatlantic signal."

"This proves everyone wrong, who thought that Europe does not matter anymore for the US," he told German daily Passauer Neue Presse.

Kerry is someone who is "comfortable engaging with Europe, and someone with whom Europe is comfortable engaging," Barker told AFP.

As a child, he lived in post-World War II Berlin when his father was a Foreign Service officer in the divided city. The secretary of state also attended a Swiss boarding school and has relatives in France.

On several occasions over the past weeks, Kerry put forward the narrative that his bike rides as a boy in war-scarred Berlin shaped his world view.

Speaking to his staff on his first day in the State Department, Kerry said that he learned "a great lesson about the virtue of freedom" venturing on his own into the Soviet sector.

Obama's choice for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, also has a very Atlanticist background.

The former Nebraska senator, who is likely to be confirmed as Pentagon chief next week in the Senate despite Republican opposition, served as chairman of the Atlantic Council, one of the main transatlantic organizations in Washington.

"This is very europhile cabinet that is put together," said Siegel.

 

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