For her first overseas trip as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton went to Asia. For his first trip, John Kerry chose Europe. His choice is partly a result of his strong connections across the Atlantic and partly a move against the frustrations U.S. diplomats have faced in places like Beijing. Kerry’s choice also speaks to a remarkable narrowing of the Atlantic, which culminated in Obama’s championing of a transatlantic free-trade agreement in his State of the Union address this month.
Only 10 years ago, Europe and the U.S. were meant to be so different that not only did they have different views, but they viewed each other as if from different planets. Politically and militarily, the author Robert Kagan claimed, Americans were from Mars and Europeans from Venus. American commentators used to routinely denounce European economies for being closed, backward-looking and missing the wave of the future. Germany was still seen as the sick man of Europe, and it was the subject of ridicule for the way it was wedded to an industrial economy in a post-industrial age. What a difference a decade can make.
As a European in Washington, I have spent much of the past few weeks listening to pillars of the American foreign policy and economic establishments. I am struck by how many of today’s U.S. debates mirror those in Europe. These two giant economies are no longer as different as they once were.
In the foreign policy and security fields, no one seems to be coming from Mars anymore. The U.S. is debating how to avoid war and how to save money. Everyone agrees that ‑ whether or not there is a sequester ‑ there will be deep cuts in the Pentagon’s budget, with tens of thousands of soldiers and marines facing decommission. On Friday, a seminar at the Brookings Institution, which gathered soldiers, senators and academics, seemed to agree that future administrations should not call on the armed forces to intervene directly in other countries’ civil wars, to build democracy or engage in lengthy peacekeeping operations. As Michelle Flornoy, a former Pentagon official who many people want in the sidelines behind Defense Secretary-nominee Chuck Hagel, said, “We don’t want to be the world’s policemen.” In the place of major ground wars, participants said they want to rely on drones, alliances and rapidly conducted offshore interventions.
Where the Clinton and Bush administrations were apostles of a flat world of financial and technological globalization, the Obama administration has a more nuanced position. While Obama does not advocate protectionism, he worries that trade with China has de-industrialized the American economy, hollowed out middle-class jobs and depressed wages. (This paper on the “China Syndrome” seems to be required reading in Obama’s economic circles.) As a result, administration officials are talking about energy independence, re-industrialization, re-shoring and fair trade. Where once the U.S. saw Germany as being trapped in auto parts and metal bashing at a time when high-tech services were the future, people in D.C. now talk about the German economy with reverence.