In his State of the Union address this year, US President Barack Obama announced a bold initiative to pursue a free trade agreement between the US and the EU. During his first overseas trip as secretary of state, John Kerry stopped in four different EU countries, the UK, Germany, France, and Italy. Understandably, there is now chatter in Washington that the US appears to be pivoting to Europe.
The attention that the Obama administration is showering on Europe is not, however, new. Obama's discovery of the merits of Atlanticism took place several years ago, in the middle of his first term.
In his second term, Obama promises to advance the pivot to Asia, even while continuing to invest in the US' economic and strategic partnership with Europe, a coupling that has proved remarkably resilient long after the Cold War's end.
To be sure, Obama's initial arrival in the Oval Office did prompt speculation that he would be a "post-Atlanticist" president. His multicultural background and his readiness to seek new partners beyond the US' traditional allies suggested that a more diversified US diplomacy was in the offing.
Moreover, Obama was frustrated by Europe's unwillingness to do more in Afghanistan, its embrace of economic austerity when Washington was calling for more fiscal stimulus, and an EU that seemed to be spending more time sorting out quarrels among its members than addressing global challenges.
Well aware of Washington's impatience, Europeans worried that Obama might forsake the Atlantic link in favor of a "G2," a global condominium between the US and China. At a minimum, EU member states were anxious that Washington was losing interest in the Atlantic connection.
Such anxieties, however, soon proved to be unwarranted. Washington discovered that working with China, India, Turkey, and other rising powers was tougher than initially expected. It soon became apparent that Europe, despite its shortcomings, remained the US' go-to partner for addressing most international challenges.
As Obama explained in a New York Times op-ed in advance of the 2010 NATO Summit in Lisbon, "our relationship with our European allies and partners is the cornerstone of our engagement with the world, and a catalyst for global cooperation." In May 2011, Obama spent a full week in Europe, primarily to stress the enduring value of the Atlantic link. Soon thereafter, NATO's successful operation in Libya confirmed the efficacy of transatlantic teamwork.
Obama's focus on Europe at the opening of the second term is thus a sign of continuity, not change. The priority assigned to negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU is novel, but that move is aimed at stimulating growth and demonstrating transatlantic solidarity. It will not come at the expense of US engagement in East Asia.
Indeed, the US is simultaneously pressing ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the successful conclusion of an Atlantic trade pact could well help convince nations in other regions that they too need to tap into the benefits of trade liberalization. Market-opening deals across the Atlantic and the Pacific may be just the medicine the global economy needs to get back on its feet.
For both Americans and Europeans, transatlantic solidarity has traditionally produced an outward-looking rather than a fortress mentality. The same is true today.
The Europe and the US are both internally preoccupied as they confront economic sluggishness and political malaise.
Should transatlantic teamwork succeed in stimulating growth and consolidating strategic cooperation, the result will be greater activism and internationalism on both sides of the Atlantic. The US is not pivoting away from Europe to Asia, but pivoting with Europe as both deepen their engagement in the Pacific region.
The old debate in the US between "Europe firsters" and "Asia firsters" is today a historical artifact. Washington will for the foreseeable future continue to nurture its special partnership with Europe, even while Asia day by day looms larger in US economic and strategic plans.
The author is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and Whitney H. Shepardson senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. firstname.lastname@example.org