Berlin, February 11, 2013

The pivot to Asia - Overcoming a Communication Problem

Henriette Rytz
Henriette Rytz

Obama should present the pivot to Asia as a chance for enhancing transatlantic cooperation instead of diminishing it, says Henriette Rytz.

The U.S. pivot to Asia is the signature foreign policy of the Obama administration. In Europe, however, it has raised apprehensions that the United States will lose interest in a strong transatlantic relationship. To ease these concerns, the Obama administration should communicate more clearly that the pivot is an opportunity, not a threat, for stronger transatlantic cooperation.

The Obama administration has strengthened U.S. military, diplomatic, and economic relations with the Asia-Pacific region, including an increased U.S. military presence and negotiations over an ambitious trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Rhetorically, this has been accompanied by declarations of a "Pacific Century" and a "Pacific Presidency."

The debate in Washington is largely focused on the scope and instruments of the pivot, rather than its transatlantic implications. This makes European observers uneasy--even more so as the Obama administration plans to reduce the U.S. military presence in Europe from 80,000 to 70,000 troops by 2017. Viewing the pivot as a turn away from Europe has become a common misperception in European capitals.

To be sure, the transatlantic relationship has long passed the "golden age" of the Cold War. Yet European enthusiasm for the United States soared with the election of Barack Obama. And, at the beginning of his second term, Europeans still strongly approve of Obama. What they do not agree with are some of his policies--including the continued detention of presumed terrorists at Guant√°namo Bay, or the increased use of drone strikes, which is emerging as the next major transatlantic controversy.

To his European partners, Obama should present the pivot to Asia as a chance for enhancing transatlantic cooperation instead of diminishing it. Furthermore, he should invite them to join the United States in its efforts. While European states lack both the capabilities and the will to follow the U.S. example militarily, they can cooperate in the economic and political arenas, particularly in dealings with China.

With diplomatic resources shifting toward Asia, the United States should also look for enhanced cooperation with Europe in the Middle East, as well as in Africa. Lastly, to underline its commitment to Europe, the United States should not neglect the establishment of a transatlantic free trade agreement over its push for increased trans-Pacific economic integration.

The concern over the pivot to Asia is primarily a communication problem. The nomination of two long-standing transatlanticists to the top positions in foreign affairs, Senator John Kerry and former senator Chuck Hagel, opens an excellent window of opportunity for the Obama administration to convey the message to Europe that Obama values transatlantic cooperation even more - not less - in his second term.

This text has first been published as a contribution to the Expert Roundup "Global Advice for Obama's Second Term". The Expert Roundup is a feature of the Council of Councils Initiative launched by the Council on Foreign Relations.