Last week I participated in the Young Leaders Conference in Berlin, sponsored by the American Council on Germany. The conference brings together about 20 young leaders from the U.S. and 20 young leaders from Germany for a week of meetings in Berlin with the goal of deepening the ties between the two countries and ultimately building a relationship between the next generation of trans-Atlantic leaders. I was honored to be a delegate.
We had the opportunity to meet with several high ranking officials in the German government, including the Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble, minister of interior Thomas de Maiziere (equivalent to the United States’ secretary of Homeland Security), national security advisor Christoph Heusgen, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and other officials. Our conversations were off the record, but here are some of my lessons and insights from the week:
- Henry Kissinger once famously asked, “When I want to call Europe, who do I call?” Today, the answer appears to be clear: Germany. Germany has the most dynamic economy in Europe; Germany is the country that’s increasingly leading foreign policy in the region, especially around issues like Russia/Ukraine. During the Greek crisis, it was Germany dictating the terms.
- “The biggest threat to European unity is nationalism,” said one senior German official. The recent economic stress in the E.U. has highlighted perceived cultural differences between the countries. Some Germans see the Greeks as just lazy — work ethic is a culturally charged issue in Germany. The Finnish can’t understand why people/countries wouldn’t pay their debt on time — debt is culturally charged issue in Finland. Etc. One senior official said, “I always tell Europeans who think they are very different from each other — say, Italians and Germans — to travel to Japan. Then tell me how different they are from other Europeans.”
- Nationalism is on the rise within Europe but not as strongly in Germany because of its “complicated history.” Germany’s “complicated history” came up at several points in our conversations.
- If Europe can’t stay together as a union, its influence as a region on the global stage will decline. The individual states are not powerful or important enough on their own. But what does it mean to stay together as a “union”? Can it have a common currency without fiscal union? One official we met argued that Europe needs nothing less than a strong federal government chartered with taxing and spending authority over all the states. See: the US of A. Problem is, in Europe there are many languages, many distinct cultures, and a long, long history. I’m not holding my breath.
- The German people’s view of America runs along generational lines. Older Germans remember U.S. involvement in WWII, “tear down that wall,” and the re-building of the country post-war. Younger Germans know 9/11, George Bush, Iraq, etc. One senior official put it well: “The modern U.S.-Germany relationship cannot be based only on memories.”
- NSA spying on German officials, including Merkel’s cell phone, came up over and over again. All of the Americans on the trip were surprised at how upsetting the spying scandal was to the German government and German people. Although I don’t know what the Americans gained through the spying operation, it seems incredibly unlikely that the benefits outweighed the costs. The damage to the trust and cooperation between the two countries appears to be immense. “Are we friends or just partners?” This is a question Germans asked over and over. There’s a difference in their minds. Friends cooperate in all sorts of ways that partners would not; friends do not spy on each other.
- I entered the conference a bit skeptical of the relative importance of the U.S.-Germany relationship versus the bilateral relationship America has with China, Mexico, and others. Is Europe as a whole as important a foreign policy priority for the U.S. as Asia? No. I walked away from the conference still of the view that the primary U.S. foreign policy focus, as Barack Obama suggested in a “pivot to Asia” speech in 2011, ought to be China and Southeast Asia. And that Latin America, for economic, security, and cultural reasons, is also a more logical higher priority than Europe. But my time in Germany did persuade me that the shared values of the U.S. and Europe make the two places ideal partners to take on common challenges in Asia and elsewhere in the world. If Europe stays united — a big if — then as a trade partner, Europe would be America’s largest market. If Europe stays united, and we can pool the combined resources on both sides of the Atlantic, the rest of the world’s challenges in the middle east, Africa, and Asia look manageable. The U.S. and Europe are all democratic, capitalistic, rich, and maintain common “western values.” They will have an easier time working together. It’d be foolish not to proactively invest in the trans-Atlantic relationship.
- “Co-opetition” is a phrase you hear a lot in Silicon Valley. For example, Netflix and Amazon compete on certain product offerings (like movie streaming) and yet cooperate around many products at the same time (AWS hosting Netflix movies). In an interconnected world, companies at scale often have to maintain these sorts of complicated relationships. For countries, it’s the same. America is often positioned as a “competitor” to China. But that’s misleading. The U.S. and China governments cooperate on a million fronts in ways that lead to co-dependency. More importantly, companies in each country do a tremendous amount of business with each other and are utterly committed to peace and stability for this reason. All this to say: “Competition” is a funny word to use in isolation when discussing global trade and politics.
- If you want to understand geopolitics today, who are the actors that matter? Historically, nation-states ruled. Then came international governance organizations and large multi-national companies. Today, the internet has empowered the masses. And social networks like Facebook have “populations” of more than a billion people. Does a Facebook engineer who makes it easier to turn your profile picture into a gay flag (as happened after the Supreme Court ruling) possess more power in shaping social/political issues than a high ranking elected official who gives a speech on the same topic? The levers of power are changing.
- A lot of the elites in Germany seem dismayed that “the people” hold irrational or unwise views. For example, most German elites support TTIP, the free trade agreement that’s being worked on between U.S. and EU. But many German people are opposed. How do you reach them and better market the ideas around trade and globalization? I didn’t hear a single German government official ever mention social media… (Of course, there’s a similar dynamic in the U.S.)
- Speaking of TTIP, it was striking just how often that topic came up in our discussions in Germany. And yet, there’s very little coverage of TTIP in the U.S. We’ll see if that changes once the trans-pacific trade agreement is buttoned up.
- The labor market in Germany, while more flexible than France’s, is still inflexible when compared to the U.S. It’s hard to fire people. The German Work Councils were referenced with pride by a couple senior officials. I need to learn more about them.
- Exercising leadership means making decisions that some will disagree with. Thanks to its actions on the Greece deal, Germany is now receiving the sort of criticism the U.S. is accustomed to. Germans say they’re ready to lead and the officials we met with said, “Yes, and we’re ready to take the criticism.”
- Our understanding of modern politics depends so heavily on public opinion surveys. In the U.S. and Germany you routinely hear people cite stats like “40% of Americans think Germany is doing the right thing in the EU.” I need to learn more about public opinion surveys, survey statistics and methodologies, and how reliable they really are at capturing mass sentiment.
Finally, geopolitical musings aside, I really like traveling to Germany as a tourist. The people are friendly and helpful and there’s so much to see, do, and eat. Many thanks to all the Germans who made our visit to their country so fun and so enlightening.
(Photo credit: Patrick Cooper)