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When crises erupt, should the U.S. turn first to its European partners?

An interesting debate arose during a panel discussion this morning with current and former heads of policy planning at the State Department. When a member of the audience asked why the panelists hadn't mentioned Europe and Latin America -- two regions that are vital to U.S. interests and full of U.S. allies -- Jim Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama, noted that Europe is, in many ways, the "dog that didn't bark."

Day to day, he explained, U.S. diplomats are working closely with their European counterparts on all aspects of foreign policy -- not just those that involve Europe. They're our "preferred partner in almost every case," he noted.

Morton Halperin, a former director of policy planning under Bill Clinton, questioned that approach, however. America's reliance on its European allies, he observed, underestimates the importance of other global powers. "Should we not start with Turkey and Indonesia and India rather than with the United Kingdom and France, or at least [start with] both?" he asked.

During the discussion, Steinberg added that America's relationship with Mexico is "our most consequential bilateral relationship in many ways." "We need Mexico to succeed," he added. "It's just as important as China succeeding."

Mexico's President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto visited Washington, D.C. earlier this week, and he seems to agree. "It is a mistake to limit our bilateral relationship to drugs and security concerns," he wrote ahead of his meeting with Obama. "Our mutual interests are too vast and complex to be restricted in this short-sighted way."

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What keeps Bill Burns up at night?

After his opening remarks this morning, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns was asked "what keeps you up at night?" by a member of the audience. Here's what he said:

Obviously, the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, both by states and non-state actors. This is a huge danger and one of the main reasons why President Obama has concentrated so much over the last 4 years on nuclear security and to address the problem of proliferation. That's not unique to the Iranian challenge, it has to do with the Korean peninsula and other parts of the world too.

Burns also talked about the challenge of maintaining a balanced foreign policy when challenges form the Middle East keep popping up. "The middle east has a nasty habit of reminding us of its relevance," he said.

I was also interested to hear Burns highlight the opening of new Arctic shipping lanes due to global warming as a major emerging strategic issue, saying it could be "as important as the opening of the Suez Canal."