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Building bridges across the Atlantic

19.09.2011 - Interview

Harald Leibrecht has been Coordinator for Transatlantic Cooperation since July 6. In an interview with www.diplo.dehe talks about the areas he intends to focus on in this role.

You have been Coordinator for Transatlantic Cooperation since July 6. How do you define your role and what issues do you plan to focus on as Coordinator?

I want to build bridges between Germany and the United States, but also between Germany and Canada. I want to explain Germany’s views and political positions to Americans and Canadians, and of course to give Germans a better idea of North American perspectives.

You were born in Chicago, have both German and US citizenship and have lived in both countries.So where do you feel home is?

Home is where you feel most at home. And for me that’s definitely Germany. I grew up here, went to school here. My roots are here. I’m a Member of the German Bundestag, something I’m very proud of. It’s a huge honor for me. And I’m not just German, but also a committed European.

At the same time, though, I’ve always had close links to the United States. Two of my brothers live there. I have very many friends there, and I’ve traveled around the country a great deal. That sort of thing forms ties, and so that wonderful country is very dear to me.

The US is looking more and more towards Asia.At the moment Europe is worrying about its single currency.So how significant is the United States to Germany and Europe nowadays, and how significant are we to the United States?

Germany and Europe are no longer automatically the focus of American policy. There’s a shift taking place in American society, and in the country’s economy. Latin American and Asian Americans tend to look more towards the regions they come from. Only 64% of America’s population today has European roots. Nonetheless, Americans still regard Germany as an important, indeed very important, partner. Looking at things from our side, the Americans are not only our most important allies outside the EU, but also our major partners when it comes to economic cooperation and other areas such as academic and scientific cooperation.

Our countries are linked by a common history and by many shared values. The transatlantic partnership stands on a solid foundation all in all, even if there are occasional differences. It is important that critical issues can be discussed openly without immediately endangering the friendship. Particularly in situations where Germany and the US for once aren’t of the same mind, the job of the Coordinator is to explain each country’s stance to the other and if possible to find a course that will unite, not divide, us.

What role do new media, especially social media, play in this context?

An absolutely key role. The younger generation is growing up with social media. We need to recognize that this is an opportunity. These media also play an important role in our efforts to stand up for democracy, freedom of opinion and the rule of law in the world. In countries where these fundamental rights are not guaranteed, the Internet and social media are often the only possibility for making contact with the rest of the world. The Arab Spring is a good example. But the social media also link people in Germany and the US and Canada. This simple, fast and uncomplicated means of communication enables us Germans to learn more about the people on the other side of the Atlantic, and vice versa.

You have been involved in education and research for many years, not least as a former director of a private university.How can Germany cooperate even more closely with America in these fields in future?

There have been outstanding instances of cooperation between German and American educational establishments for many years, especially at university level. The German Academic Exchange Service, Fulbright, the Humboldt Foundation, the universities and others are doing a very important job. That’s something I certainly want to support and promote. There’s still huge potential in this area on both sides. Today Germany isn’t necessarily the first choice for young Americans thinking about studying abroad. We have to do more to target American and Canadian universities and to motivate them to send their students to Germany for a while.

We want to do more to promote German as a Foreign Language in America, too. This subject is one I’ve long been interested in as a member of the Bundestag Subcommittee on Cultural and Education Policy Abroad. If we succeed in getting more Americans and Canadians interested in German and Germany, that’ll be a big step forwards.

For decades German-American relations were strongly determined by encounters between Germans and the US soldiers stationed here.But they are becoming fewer and fewer. What new forms of interaction between the two societies can be developed?

It’s true that the US soldiers stationed in Germany were important ambassadors for our country. So we’re losing something now and will have to rethink. Making up for this loss will be very difficult. So we need to ask ourselves how we can better access American and Canadian society in future, be it via universities and schools, or through business, art or culture. But we mustn’t forget that Germans in the US are also important multipliers for our country.

I don’t want to concentrate my work on political centers like Washington and Ottawa; rather, I want to get out into the whole of the country and talk to people there. I am contacted and invited by many representatives of cultural institutes and educational establishments. I will take every opportunity to advertise our country on such occasions.

Another point of access is the business community. Many German companies – SMEs as well as big businesses – are active on the North American market. They too act as a kind of ambassador for our country, by showing what responsibilities a German company has for its staff and proving that the social market economy is a success story. Furthermore, German, American and Canadian colleagues and their families learn a lot about each other through private contacts. German companies also play a model role in vocational training abroad – one of the many reasons why they are popular employers.

Contacts with the Jewish communities and institutions in America and Canada are also important to me. Both on account of our history, and because there are many Jewish families in North America with German roots. It is important that we open up chances for building up and nurturing contact with Germany.

The “Germany Close Up” project is an outstanding example of this cooperation. The project, which is supported by the German Government, invites young American Jews on a fact-finding trip to Germany. Quite a few participants say after the trip that they’d like to come back to Germany for a longer stay, perhaps to study or work here.

The US seems to be reaching its military and financial limits following the intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.Will Europe have to take on more tasks to help stabilize fragile states in future, in order to share the burden?

Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said very clearly in a recent speech that he expected Europe to contribute more when it came to defense expenditure. At a time when Europe is short of money, this wasn’t popular. Germany will continue to live up to its international responsibility. We are demonstrating this impressively, after all, in Afghanistan.

Germany can play a very decisive role in civilian reconstruction. Indeed this is one of our strengths. Through targeted economic cooperation in developing countries, we can help to counter negative repercussions at an early stage, even before a conflict erupts. But Germany will also continue to make an important contribution to post-conflict reconstruction efforts. In Libya we will again show that this is something we Germans are good at.

You are also responsible for relations with Canada. What special role does Canada play for Europe?

Canada is a major partner in many areas. In the first instance, it is a NATO ally, but it is also a close partner in other spheres too, from trade to human rights. I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Canada isn’t a member, but it is an observer there. Again and again I am amazed at how committed the Canadian MPs are to the work of the Parliamentary Assembly. They show a great interest in cooperation with Europe.

Even though 85% of Canada’s foreign trade is conducted with the United States, Canadians are nonetheless very strongly oriented to Europe. Canada is an interesting market for German products, for example in the energy sector. And many Canadian companies tell me that they would like to become more established on the European market. If I can help to open doors and set the course, then I will gladly do so.

Finally: as a German, what do you like most about Americans, and as an American, what do you like most about the Germans?

As a German I like the openness of Americans. They’re always friendly, and they always think positive. And they don’t beat about the bush: if they don’t like something, they’ll come right out and tell you so.

And, as an American, what I like about the Germans is that even though they are a very small country in geographical terms, they are very successful, not only in business and technology, but also in education. Germany has a lot to offer in this regard, and we should cooperate even more closely with each other here.

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