Pivot to Asia requires a stronger Europe

President Barack Obama's visit this week to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines has been an opportunity to refocus America’s attention on what could and should be one of his most important foreign policy legacies: the rebalancing of American strategic attention to Asia.

Last month, the president visited Europe, where the discussion focused largely on establishing a unified U.S.-EU response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, providing reassurance to NATO allies of the commitment to collective defense, and making an effort to keep the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) alive.  Europeans expressed tremendous confidence (and relief) that the United States seemed to be pivoting back to Europe.  

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This is not a tennis match, however, where the American public and foreign elites look one way and then the other as the ball is played on different sides of the international court.  Just as it was a mistake to view the U.S. rebalance to Asia as a sign that Europe no longer mattered, it would be unfortunate if Europeans regarded recent events in Ukraine and the renewed attention to NATO as the reprisal of the United States’ singular focus on Europe.  

The United States does not focus on Europe one month, and Asia the next.  In fact, the president’s trips to Europe and Asia this spring are inextricably linked, and not simply because allies in Asia are watching American support for allies in Europe with great interest.  

Europe remains central to U.S. foreign policy today, but not merely because of our shared values, alliance relations, and trade ties. A powerful Europe that can ensure prosperity, security, and stability on the continent and that can take leadership roles when necessary in Africa and the Middle East is essential for American efforts to manage the economic, political, and military challenges associated with the rise of Asia.  

The United States cannot succeed in Asia without a stronger Europe.

The issue today is not U.S. attention to Europe but Europe’s ability to do more.  For decades, the United States has complained of European free-riding and underspending on defense.  Raising the specter of instability in Ukraine as an opportunity to advocate for increased military spending on the continent is unlikely to yield satisfaction. But the United States and Europe should jointly promote a division of labor to address shared challenges.

The United States needs a Europe that is economically robust and committed to free trade in order for it to remain a major American trading partner. It needs a Europe that maintains a strong voice for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in major international fora as well as a commitment to a non-proliferation agenda. And it needs a Europe that partners with the United States to combat terrorism, cyber attacks, and future forms of violence and conflict.

But above all, the United States should seek to recast the Transatlantic relationship as one in which Europeans take the lead in maintaining peace in Europe and engage in small interventions in Africa and the Middle East when its interests are at stake, while the United States balances its foreign policy to manage the challenges arising dramatically in the Asia-Pacific region.

The United States will continue to play a central role in Europe (as the Ukraine crisis has demonstrated), but it must also pursue with vigor a strategic focus on Asia. The ability to address challenges across the Asia-Pacific will serve European interests as well as U.S. interests, and this theme should be central to the president’s trip and to America’s global strategy going forward.

Goldgeier is dean of the School of International Service at American University and co-author of America Between the Wars: From11/9 to 9/11. Follow him on Twitter @JimGoldgeier.