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Transatlantic relations

Opinion: US rediscovers Europe

The US once again views Europe as its most important global partner and is pushing for closer cooperation. That was the surprising and positive message from the Munich Security Conference, says DW's Michael Knigge.

Michael Knigge is a reporter in DW's English department

Europeans are used to criticism. They regularly had to listen to it in the past, when they were often told how inflexible and discordant they were and, as a result, increasingly became insignificant as allies for the United States. Four years ago, then newly elected US Vice President Joe Biden did not take the opportunity at the Munich Security Conference, the most important non-official summit for transatlantic relations, to deepen and expand US and European relations. Instead, he announced a realignment of relations between Washington and Moscow - the so-called reset of relations. Europe would no longer automatically be the US' preferred partner in the world - that was the early and clear signal from President Barack Obama's first administration. This attitude was stressed several times throughout Obama's first term - most clearly during the "Asia Pivot" when the US began orienting its foreign and security policy toward Asia.

This time around, Biden reiterated that the United States would "remain both a Pacific power and an Atlantic power" - saying anything else would be surprising and short-sighted given the growing importance of the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, what was new and significant was Biden's highlighting of US relations with Europe. Europe is the US's primary and closest ally in all global issues, he said. "Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement with the world," Biden stressed. Europeans and Americans should, for instance, work together - rather than against or alongside one another - in representing their interests in Asia.

More than just the usual empty phrases

One might be tempted to think that the United States merely wants to make nice after insulting Europe, given the fact that the Continent seeks recognition from the US and measures its global standing along the lines of that recognition - to some degree, rightly so.

But there are two things that do not jibe with that: for one thing, in the past, the US has always clearly pointed out the deficits its sees in Europe, without worrying about whether it was insulting European sensitivities.

For another thing, Biden discussed the concrete goal of establishing a transatlantic free-trade pact, and Washington has spoken with Europeans behind the scenes about the matter.

But what prompted the Obama administration's turn-around? The president surely has not suddenly undergone an emotional transformation with regard to Europeans at the start of his second administration. It's more likely that the US government has realized just how important Europe is for the prosperity of its own country.

China and Asia are significant for the United States - and are becoming ever more important. But Europe, as the world's largest economic zone, is more central for Washington - at least right now. This has become readily apparent through Europe's ongoing financial and debt crisis, as its consequences have a direct effect on the US economy as it is so closely connected with Europe's.

Ironically, then, we could view Europe's debt crisis as being responsible for breathing new life into trans-Atlantic relations, after years of stagnation. That Biden has stressed the importance of US-European relations and has suggested taking concrete steps toward turning a transatlantic free-trade pact into reality - all of that is more than just the usual empty phrases. But it's also no sure-fire success. It's good news that the United States has rediscovered Europe. Europe should be happy. And then prove that Biden was absolutely right.

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