Transatlantischen (T)Raum: John B. Emerson at the DAZ

by Maya Moritz

The history of German-American relations in general and in the Heidelberg area specifically may be at a turning point. During the height of tourist season, you’ll easily find older Army veterans bringing their families to visit their former service base. Recently, however, the relocation of US Army troops from Heidelberg to Wiesbaden in 2015 served as one example of the changing nature of American presence in the region. Former barracks are being refashioned into housing developments and office space, such as the Patrick Henry Village. Still, the importance of diplomacy remains as important as ever according to the former US Ambassador to Germany John B. Emerson. During his Fireside Chat hosted by the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Zentrum (DAZ) in Stuttgart, Emerson imparted the need to try to “build a deeper and more profound understanding” between Germany and America. Such a concern is especially germane as newly-elected President Joe Biden begins appointing foreign diplomats, including the incoming US Ambassador to Germany.

The DAZ is a “German cultural and educational institute located in Stuttgart and our mission is to inform about the U.S. and transatlantic relations as well as fostering German-American friendship,” according to Katharina Buchter, who coordinates the communication projects of the DAZ. “We achieve this through a variety of different programs such as lectures and talks in our cultural program, language courses, an English library, advising for teenagers and young adults on exchange opportunities, and school programs that can be booked by teachers to enrich their classrooms.” There are 12 major German-American organizations across Germany, including in Tübingen, Freiburg, and Heidelberg.

Switching to a digital format appears to have served the DAZ. “The majority of our audience is living in the greater Stuttgart area but now with our digital programs we’ve been able to reach people all over Baden-Württemberg, Germany, and even internationally,” Buchter explained. “In a very short time, we went from all analog to all digital. Lots of new ground but also a lot of opportunities: We can reach more people with our programs as we’re not limited by geography or room size anymore. And our speakers, expert, or panelists can be located anywhere as well. In January, for example we had a discussion with young American voters, and they participated from all over the U.S. and Germany. For our EUREKA kick-off event with Max Herre in December, our panel was located in Stuttgart, Berlin, London, and the San Francisco Bay area. So some distances can now be overcome with just a click and our audience is now open to that, too, because digital events are the new normal.”


Talking Politics

The 1.5-hour Fireside Chat, which took place on February 9, is part of the series “Das Ende des transatlantischen (T)Raumes?” Buchter said of the event: “The series’ goal is to examine the current state and future of transatlantic relations with the help of high-level experts. We wanted to address diplomatic relations and the power of diplomacy, so we approached Ambassador Emerson and invited him to be our speaker.” The series launched in the Deutsch Amerikanisches Institut in Freiburg with the former Chief Economist of the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz.

The DAZ is non-partisan but doesn’t shy away from political speakers and programming. Buchter writes, “We provide our audience with opportunities to gather information provided by experts, for example political scientists, engage with them through asking questions during the Q&A sessions, and make up their own mind afterwards. We encourage critical questions and discussion. That creates a space for open dialog – people might not all agree at the end of the night, and that’s also not our goal, but there might be mutual understanding or at least an understanding that there is a different perspective.” The Fireside Chat drew in over 400 viewers, with questions focusing on the painstaking ambassador appointment process, the removal of US troops from Germany, and diplomacy during the Trump regime.

Emerson touched on a myriad of topics during his interview by Marion Danzeisen, cultural program manager of the DAZ in Stuttgart. After acting as a senior White House official for President Bill Clinton and chairperson in California for President Obama’s first term, Emerson attributes significant luck to his 2013 appointment to the US Ambassador role. During his term in Berlin, he dealt with issues of national security including the refugee crisis and the Russian invasion of Crimea.  His previous political experience helped him gain the “judgement and flexibility to handle whatever comes at you because it’s difficult to predict what the job may entail.” He believes that the “much broader and more important part of the job is really the public diplomacy aspect.” He also highlighted that the U.S. ambassador “is representative of the US, including Republicans, Democrats, business, arts, culture, and historical connections.” According to Emerson, an ambassador represents the President as well as America as a whole and should work to “understand the host nation and communicate that back to policymakers in Washington.” His “fundamental goal and objective [was] to leave the post with a deeper and more profound tie between the US and Germany” than when he arrived “on every level- business, people, and government.”

His tenure began with challenges that may have overwhelmed a less driven statesman. The Snowden leaks surfaced as he took office, resulting in Handygate as the US was accused of spying on Chancellor Merkel’s calls. The resulting crisis of confidence led to speculations that the allyship between the US and Germany may be weaker than previously thought. Emerson received instructions to avoid comment on intelligence matters, but apparently ripped up the memo. He stated that he knew the president would agree that this would be the wrong approach to rebuilding trust, Emerson’s primary goal after the leak. Instead, Emerson “travelled Germany meeting with large and small groups of people, influencers and opinion leaders, allowing them to express concerns and understanding their concern and then moving to a place where we can understand and grow together.” Only ten months later, the Charlie Hebdo attacks shook the international community and terrorism became a major focus of his work.

Looking forward, Emerson is hopeful for a Biden presidency. The February 4th speech claiming that “diplomacy is back” marks a change from Trump policy. Emerson believes that Trump’s diplomacy was a “very sharp departure from a 40-50 year bipartisan consensus that one of the strongest assets the US has is alliances” and that “one of the most valuable resources is the multilateral institutions created in the wake of the Second World War.” Emerson cited a poll from the American Council on Germany that found that Americans have a highly positive outlook on Germany while a majority of Germans felt that the US relationship with Germany was poor. Emerson stated that this was a “reflection of the response to the Trump administration” which was “marked not by consultation and coordination and cooperation but by bullying and policymaking by tweet.”


Looking Ahead

The next US Ambassador to Germany likely won’t be chosen until March and then sworn in much later. Emerson’s own appointment process lasted nearly a year from nomination to beginning work. He imagines that the process will take much longer with a non-incumbent President, as his own process took place during President Obama’s second term, which didn’t require the assembly of an entirely new government. Emerson suggested that the next ambassador “should be a good listener” and “bring a ‘We’re Back’ message to Germany and the German people.” If you missed Emerson’s Fireside Chat, the event can be viewed on the YouTube channel of the DAZ.

The DAZ has more upcoming opportunities, especially for students. “We’re looking forward to in-person events once it’s possible to get together safely again, but we already know that we’ll also include digital or hybrid programs in the future,” says Buchter. “On February 24, we have an event on occasion of Black History Month that takes place in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy in Berlin and the Consulate Generals throughout Germany – The Road Ahead: Working towards Racial Justice and Equality. On March 9, Kimberly Peeler-Allen, who is an expert on female political leadership, will talk about the causes and effects of gender inequality in politics. EUREKA! Ländle Meets California is a monthly event series on the sister state partnership between Baden-Württemberg and California that highlights things we have in common, can learn from each other or can cooperate on. This year, we will also celebrate two important anniversaries that will be reflected in our programs throughout 2021: James F. Byrnes’ historic Speech of Hope is turning 75 years old. Byrnes delivered in on September 6, 1946 at the Stuttgart opera house and it’s considered a turning point of German-American relations after WWII. And the DAZ, together with our predecessor Amerikahaus Stuttgart, can look back on a combined 75 years as well.” Students are encouraged to attend events and submit questions in the Q&A. American students in Germany can currently take advantage of volunteer opportunities in school programs. Students of all nationalities can participate in the internships offered by the DAZ.

The Fireside Chat with former US Ambassador to Germany John B. Emerson was an enlightening, lively chat with a fascinating insider perspective on policymaking and diplomacy. During such confusing times, insights into the murky political process and opportunities to engage with changemakers are invaluable to students and the Mannheim community alike.