Political Leadership from an Ambassador’s Perspective

Germany’s Political Leadership in Europe
Botschafter Konferenz / German Chiefs-of-Mission Conference
Berlin, August 24, 2015
Ambassador John B. Emerson

Thank you, Stephan Kornelius.

Thank you, State Secretary Ederer, Mr. Kotthaus

I had the privilege of attending the Botschafter Konferenz (BOKO) last year.  Thank you for inviting me back, and I look forward to sharing some brief thoughts with you on the leadership role of the United States and Germany, and to our discussion afterwards.

The Department of State also holds an annual Chiefs of Mission conference.  It is an extraordinary opportunity to share observations with colleagues at posts around the world, and it quickly becomes obvious how complex global cross-currents of conflict and crisis, trade and commerce, technology and innovation, ethnicity and religion connect all of our embassies and consulates around the world.  Now, obviously, the specific challenges will be different if you are based in Berlin or London or Washington, like Botschafter Ammon and Botschafter Wittig, than places like Kabul.

But there is a commonality that we, as German and American diplomats, all share – no matter where we serve:  We are committed to a diplomacy that balances both interests and values; one that addresses present and urgent crises while maintaining a reliable, rules-based 21st century international order; and one that not only sees the world as it is, but tries to shape the world that ought to be.   While we must take action against immediate threats, we simultaneously pursue a world in which the need for such action is increasingly diminished.  And it’s important to keep that in mind, because on a daily basis, we all confront the tendency of the urgent, the short-term crises of the moment, to overwhelm and eclipse the important, our long-term goals.

As American Ambassador to Germany, I am privileged to serve here at what I believe is the most significant time in our relationship since reunification.  The “partnership in leadership” with a reunited Germany that President George H.W. Bush foresaw on the eve of German reunification, has, in fact, come to pass.  Today Germany plays a critical role both within Europe and throughout the world; and it is without question one of America’s strongest allies.  Foreign Minister Steinmeier has described Germany’s role as Europe’s “chief facilitating officer.”  I often describe our relationship as “indispensable.”

Multiple recent events have proved this to be the case.  Over the course of the past two years, we have responded, in coordinated fashion to a series of complex global crises and challenges – many of which did not even exist when I arrived in Berlin as the American Ambassador in the summer of 2013.

Think about it: The Russian aggression in the Ukraine, which threatens to undermine the rule of law and commitment to territorial integrity that has been a hallmark of post-Cold War Europe; the terrorism in the Mid-East, in the form of ISIL and remaining Al Qaeda factions, that has metastasizedthroughout Europe and northern Africa; the transition of Afghanistan from an occupied country to a free society where women and girls now have the right to vote and the opportunity to be educated; the threat of Ebola and the disintegration of the public health system in West Africa; the continuing crisis in Greece and the increasing tragedy of refugees, both internally and externally displaced people, in places like Ukraine, the mid-East, northern Africa, and of course within Europe; ensuring, through careful diplomacy, that Iran never develops a nuclear weapon; the challenge of even taking advantage of the great opportunity presented by creating the largest free trade zone in the world; and the increasingly dire threat and consequences of a changing climate.  On every one of these issues, Germany has embraced a major leadership role; and the German-American relationship has been front and center.  (Heck, if I were living in Asia, I would be concerned about a pivot to Europe!)

This has not always been easy; and clearly the drip-drip-drip, or should I say dump-dump-dump, of Snowden-related NSA allegations has not been helpful.  But, let me say that my colleagues at the Embassy – and back in Washington — have been impressed with the breadth and the depth of Germany’s foreign policy commitment; and with the thoughtful debate regarding Germany’s increasingly global responsibility, as reflected in the comprehensive study to that end here in the Auswärtiges Amt.

Yet there is an even deeper element of diplomacy that the United States and Germany share.  Both of our countries are uniquely powerful forces for advancing human freedom and universal rights around the world.  As President Obama said last year at the UN General Assembly, “The United States will never shy away from defending our interests, but we will also not shy away from the promise of this institution and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the notion that peace is not merely the absence of war, but the presence of a better life.”

America’s critics are quick to point out that at times we have failed to live up to our ideals.  And sometimes they’re right.  We have problems within our own borders.  We have our own racial and ethnic tensions.  Like every country, we struggle with the changes shaped by globalization and its dislocating effects.  And even as a nation of immigrants, we continue to struggle with the challenges posed by immigration.  But America is also a country that has steadily worked to address its problems.  Our Constitution was drafted on the premise of forming “a more perfect union.”  That is, by definition, a continuing process.  We fight for our ideals.  We are willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short – and we take steps to improve.  That includes reforming the institutions that protect our Freiheit and ourSicherheit.  We hold leaders accountable; and we vigorously defend our free press and independent judiciary.  We address our differences in the open space of democracy – with respect for the rule of law; with a place for people of every race and every religion; and with an unyielding belief in the ability of individual men and women to change their communities and their circumstances and their countries for the better.

And what better example of that than Germany.  This year, you celebrate the 25th anniversary of reunification.  For people around the world, Germany’s history is a reminder that the grip of totalitarianism, and walls of concrete and barbed wire, are ultimately no match for the will of ordinary men and women who are determined to live free.  In other words, both of our countries are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom; and we’re prepared to do what is necessary to secure that legacy for generations to come.  Ultimately, leadership requires us to see the world as it is, with all its dangers and uncertainty.  But leadership also requires us to see the world as it should be, and by our actions to show the way forward.

That means being willing to make politically tough decisions, and stand up for them both at home and abroad – whether it is re-opening diplomatic relations with Cuba; or implementing a long-sought deal with Iran; or promoting LGBT rights in cultures where they are met with open hostility.  It means working to keep Greece in the Eurozone or completing the work on a major trade agreement – even when these may be politically unpopular.  It means sacrificing short-term economic gains for the long-term benefits of the climate, the development needs of energy, or the moral necessity of addressing humanitarian catastrophes in other parts of the world.  It also means making investments in a joint defense to protect our citizens, our interests, and our values; and recognizing the very real threat posed by increasingly prevalent cyber-attacks.  It means taking risks –that may not always work out.

But sometimes the nature of leadership is misunderstood.  The commentariat in both of our countries is generally scornful of the concept of “leading from behind.”  But true leadership is not necessarily about one country leading and others following.  Leadership does not have to mean shouldering the burden alone; it means inspiring others to join you in doing the job.  It means generating support for a common vision.  I have often said that one nation can win a war, but it takes many nations to win the peace.  In our increasingly interconnected world, no country can go it alone and hope others will follow.  Others will join in if they believe in a clearly articulated common vision, with common goals.

In the U.S., we have formulated 21st century approaches in the National Security Strategy.  For instance, our 2015 NSS states: “We have an opportunity – and obligation –to lead the way in reinforcing, shaping, and where appropriate, creating the rules, norms, and institutions that are the foundation for peace, security, prosperity, and the protection of human rights in the 21st century.”  That means leading through partnership, based on principles of mutual responsibility, mutual respect, and mutual interest.

That also means respecting and promoting international law, and underscores the importance of maintaining rules, norms, and institutions.  Post-WWII institutions, such as the UN, NATO, the OSCE, have been force multipliers.  But the world has changed over time; and these institutions must as well.  Evolving them to meet the demands of today must be a critical part of our shared transatlantic leadership (and we are very much looking forward to Germany’s chairmanship of the OSCE).  The importance of partners leading together is illustrated by the Iran nuclear negotiations, the ongoing T-TIP negotiations, and our joint response, with Germany often in the lead, to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

We also have to be willing to adapt and innovate.  That might mean leveraging different groups of nations to address different problems, as we have done in places like Iran, Ukraine, and West Africa.   It will also mean going beyond traditional diplomatic channels and engaging directly with civil society and the private sector.  And it will mean using the power of technology and markets to attack problems in entirely new ways.

I am sure you would agree that one of the most direct threats to our societies is terrorism.  That requires vigilance, robust intelligence cooperation, and a willingness to project force quickly and effectively.  But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.  We will never ultimately succeed in combating terrorism until our societies deal with the reality of young people who grow up in our midst feeling so isolated, so without hope or a sense of purpose, that they are susceptible to being recruited by extremists.  We also need to partner with and empower countries where terrorists seek a foothold.  Afghanistan is one of the best examples.  Today, more than 4 million Afghan children attend school – and about 40 % of them are girls.  Prior to our involvement, when the Taliban were in charge, around one million children were in school.  The number of girls?  Zero.  Dedicated diplomats and development professionals from both of our countries have worked to make that possible.

Our collective colleagues have also forged diverse coalitions to confront threats ranging from ISIL to Ebola to the oceans and the changing climate.  Both of our countries were on the ground to respond to natural disasters in Haiti and the Philippines, and we are building infrastructure and institutions in both places, to create the foundation for a resilient future.  We work each day with governments and civil society around the world to confront corruption; and have helped more than 100 nations to develop laws against human trafficking during the last decade.  We have helped to invigorate local and national economies by promoting women’s rights and economic empowerment.  We have worked with our private sectors and partner nations to spur billions in investments in critical energy infrastructure across Africa.  And all of that is just the tip of the iceberg.  Together, we are getting things done that simply couldn’t and wouldn’t happen without us.

Our countries are closely linked by an extraordinary spirit of cooperation, a spirit defined by the principles of responsible and forward-looking leadership that we share.  Together we strive to make the complex world in which we live a bit more perfect, more peaceful, more just, and more prosperous.  The measure of our success will be determined by our ability to live up to the strength of our ideals and, in the words of President Obama, our determination “to make sure we get things right.”

So to conclude, on the question of German leadership: It’s necessary.  It’s working.  Don’t worry so much about it and keep at it!