US signals revived interest in economic ties with Europe

After Obama's famous pivot to Asia in his first term, the president seems to have recognised the importance of the transatlantic relationship

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 February, 2013, 5:24am


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After much talk about a US pivot to Asia, signs of a revived American interest in Europe have appeared.

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

Obama's new secretary of state, John Kerry, was due to depart yesterday on his first official trip to four European capitals before heading to the Middle East. His predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, chose 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 told Europeans that Washington still valued 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 co-operation," 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", while 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 Obama acknowledges the need "to consolidate … some of our legacy relationships".

A year ago, the White House pressed Europe to combat its sovereign debt crisis, fearing that a European financial meltdown would drag down America's economy ahead of the presidential election. As markets have calmed in response to action by euro-zone governments and the European Central Bank, Washington seems to have turned its attention to opportunities that lie in the transatlantic realm.

Facing a slow recovery, Obama announced in his State of the Union address this month 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 multitrillion-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 an op-ed recently.

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

As a child, Kerry lived in post-second world war Berlin when his father was a Foreign Service officer there. On several occasions in recent weeks, Kerry put forward a narrative that his bike rides as a boy in war-scarred Berlin shaped his world view.

Obama's choice for secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel, who is likely to be confirmed as Pentagon chief this week in the Senate despite Republican opposition, served as chairman of the Atlantic Council, one of the main transatlantic organisations in Washington.

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