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America is back and looking forward

David Ignatius

Publication: The Day

Published February 08. 2013 4:00AM

Every movie buff remembers the conclusion of "The Wizard of Oz," when Dorothy wishes herself back from a head-spinning foreign travail by repeating the phrase, "There's no place like home." Well, there was a bit of that sentimental homecoming on display last weekend at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, whose theme might have been "Back to the Future."

Vice President Joe Biden was positively gushing about the good old trans-Atlantic alliance in his speech to the conference. Only a year ago, Europeans were facing an existential economic crisis and worrying about an American "pivot" to Asia. But the economic talk here was about Europe's recovery from its near-death experience, and Biden reassured his audience that U.S. policy, too, has come back to its traditional center point:

"Simply put, President Obama and I continue to believe that Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement with the rest of the world," Biden said. "It's that basic. Nothing has changed."

At another point, Biden (who has been attending this conference since the 1970s) described himself as a "proud Atlanticist." He affirmed that "we are a Pacific power." But you couldn't mistake his relief in saying, "It's great to be back among friends," or his insistence that "Europe remains America's indispensable partner of first resort."

Biden has a gift for telling people what they want to hear. But this wasn't just the speech of an ingratiating politician. An administration that began with such broad ambitions in foreign policy does seem to have come back home to a traditional conception of American alliances and strategic doctrine. Obama's picks for secretaries of state and defense, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, are as old-school Atlanticist as Biden.

For an administration whose second term is framed with the idea that America is ending two wars and doesn't want to start any new ones, Europe is safe. This is not an administration that is seeking new enemies, or new friends, even. It likes the old set of allies, especially now that they are looking less feeble. Indeed, Biden disclosed that one of the new initiatives Obama will propose this year is a trans-Atlantic trade and investment zone, which encapsulates the atavistic 2013 agenda.

The relief that the eurozone crisis has largely passed was palpable here. Even though Germany still wants to keep the screws on debtor nations such as Greece and Spain, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble talked about "progress" and "headway" in the crisis, and there wasn't any disagreement from Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the head of Germany's opposition Social Democratic Party.

Steinmeier sounded the "back to the future" theme when he boasted that even in the age of high tech, "We actually like manufacturing." This old-fashioned determination to maintain (and modernize) its industrial base helped Germany remain prosperous after the 2008 recession even as Britain and other European nations suffered convulsions from an overreliance on the financial sector.

Given how widely it was predicted that the eurozone couldn't hold together, its resilience counts as one of the interesting contrarian facts of the new year, as Philip Stephens noted last week in The Financial Times. Without ever quite admitting it, German Chancellor Angela Merkel bucked the Bundesbank and allowed the creation of a robust European Central Bank that can act as lender and guarantor of last resort, much as the Federal Reserve does.

Confidence and liquidity are returning to European markets, as Deutsche Bank co-chairman Anshu Jain told the conference. He noted that default rates have halved in Italy and Spain, trading volatility has declined, and countries and corporations are again able to tap the financial markets.

But the abiding economic fact, which underlay nearly every discussion here, is that the American economy is on the way back - not just a recovery from 2008, but toward a new energy self-sufficiency and manufacturing edge based on low-cost oil and gas shale. Jain of Deutsche Bank argued that given these cost advantages, the U.S. economy "looks very strong for the next 20 years."

That's the irony as the foreign-policy wheels of 2013 start turning. Almost despite itself, America is back, embracing once again its traditional allies. America may have struggled in Iraq and Afghanistan, it may be facing a rising China, but somehow it has managed to fall uphill.

This is one of the blessings of American power: You can make enormous economic mistakes, embark on costly and largely futile foreign wars, watch your closest European allies flirt with disaster - and still look like the indispensable, inevitable power.

As Dorothy said, there's no place like home.

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