Obama’s welcomed ‘pivot’ back to Europe

Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for Cinema for Peace)

Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for Cinema for Peace)

Lunching high above Berlin last month at Axel Springer, Germany’s and Europe’s multimedia powerhouse, my host asked me what I thought was a curious question. Florian Nehm, head of corporate sustainability and EU affairs, wondered if the American people were concerned about the Obama administration’s “pivot” away from Europe in favor of Asia.

As you know, foreign policy is not my forte’. But I knew enough to tell him that, for the most part, the American people are not as mindful of the world on the other side of the oceans as everyone else is. And those who are mindful look east to China either as a cause of concern (those who have lost jobs) or opportunity (those companies looking for investments and growth). Yet, I told my host that he really needn’t worry about the United States turning its back on Europe. After all, our ties to the Continent are strong culturally, politically and economically.

While Nehm looked on with understanding, I knew his concerns were not allayed.

I was reminded of that conversation at a lunch today for Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The leader of the Social Democratic Party and of the German opposition (and former vice chancellor and foreign minister) talked about this concern about the American “pivot.” Actually, he wasn’t terribly concerned about it, especially after listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address.

“And tonight, I’m announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union,” Obama said Tuesday night, “because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.”

While this must have been music to the ears of nervous Europeans, Germans seem to be particularly pleased with other things Obama had to say. When the president said he wanted to “make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job,” he turned to Germany as a shining example of what needed to be done.

“Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges,” Obama said. “So those German kids, they’re ready for a job when they graduate high school.  They’ve been trained for the jobs that are there.”

When Obama wanted to make the case for using infrastructure spending on road and bridge repairs to attract business to the U.S., he used the American arm of a German company to make that case.

“Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire — a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and Internet; high-tech schools, self-healing power grids,” the president said. “The CEO of Siemens America — a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina — said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs.  And that’s the attitude of a lot of companies all around the world.” Such a European focus in the State of the Union must have been music to the ears of nervous Europeans and Germans.

The conversation today reinforced for me the importance of the State of the Union. Some deride the annual ritual as a laundry list of ambitions doomed to failure. But Steinmeier’s pointing out with pride where Obama tipped his hat to Germany was a reminder that people at home and abroad look to that address for a statement of priorities. Nehm must be pleased that Europe remains a priority for the U.S.

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