WHEN THE Obama administration announced last November that the United States would pivot its strategic attention to Asia, few disagreed. After all, the Asia-Pacific region is where China is rising to global power and India, South Korea, Indonesia, and Australia are providing much of global growth and prosperity. After focusing on Europe for well over two centuries, the United States would now make Asia the top priority.
While this policy shift was perhaps inevitable, it played badly in other parts of the world, especially among Europeans. If the United States was pivoting east, did that mean it was also pivoting away from our oldest and best friends in Europe? Given that the European allies have supported us in most of the conflicts of the last 60 years, it clearly rankled that the United States had proclaimed they were no longer number one on our dance card. What also hurt was the persistent drumbeat of many American critics that Europe is fading in importance, a beautiful museum to visit but no longer central to the global future.
At a conference in Brussels last weekend, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund, I heard from countless European officials how simplistic, shallow, and plain wrong the pundits are. Europe still matters greatly to the United States, they say, and we should be skeptical about predictions of its imminent demise. Consider these simple facts. The European Union remains the largest trading partner of the United States and our leading investor. Its 500 million consumers make Europe an economic superpower with which we often compete but more often do business vital to Wall Street as well as Main Street.
Europe also matters on defense. Europe’s 26 NATO members and Canada are the largest group of American allies in the world. They rose to our defense after 9/11. Most have been fighting with us in Afghanistan and Iraq and are still keeping the peace we won with them in Bosnia and Kosovo. They led the way in overthrowing Moammar Khadafy in Libya and are our strongest partners in opposing Iran’s nuclear plans. We are united by trust and a common democratic bond.
In some ways, Europe may be critical for America on the great transnational challenges - from climate change to drug and crime cartels, from terrorism to weapons of mass destruction. On these issues that require close international collaboration, Europe is nearly always our best and most important partner. In this sense, we will need to accelerate our ties with Europe, rather than diminish them, to meet these difficult global challenges.
But Europe and the Unites States need to overcome some important obstacles to do so. Europe is consumed by the euro debt crisis and a growing loss of confidence about its role in the world. Europeans are justifiably proud of the extraordinary achievement of the European Union in bringing an end to hundreds of years of division and war. But Europeans are sometimes too inward looking and preoccupied with building that union. They have let defense spending fall to dangerously low levels. Europe needs a greater global view and a strategy to match it.
The United States has its own challenge - to remember that we are also a European power. Our military still dominates the European continent through leadership in NATO. If we ignore Europe, however, we will lose the transatlantic link that has been our most important international lifeline of the last half century. Instead, we must continue to invest in NATO and treat Europe as the indispensable democratic partner it remains.
The United States can’t afford to pivot to one part of the world alone. We are still the only superpower and so must be active on all continents. While China and Asia will be our leading global challenge, it would be foolish to forsake the European allies who may be as vital to our future as they were to our past.
Nicholas Burns is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His column appears regularly in the Globe.