Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the 20th anniversary celebration of the American Academy in Berlin

08.10.2014 - Speech

Ladies and gentlemen,
Friends of the American Academy,
And above all, dear Gary Smith,

Jean Monnet, one of the fathers of European unity, gave us the wise words: “Nothing is possible without men, but nothing is lasting without institutions.”

The American Academy, whose twentieth anniversary we are celebrating today, is a truly remarkable institution.

Yet it would never have come into being without equally remarkable people, who, with their imagination, experience, passion, vision – and of course their money, too – created and breathed life into this jewel of transatlantic encounters. Listing all of them would be a splendid way of entertaining you all for the rest of the evening.

Especially as each and everyone of you could be sure of being mentioned individually, but don’t worry, tonight I’ll limit myself to talking about two people in particular.


It all began with Richard Holbrooke, at the time American Ambassador to Germany. A diplomat who was not only familiar with all the tools of diplomacy, but who had mastered using them and was willing to do so. Anyone who has experienced him in action has seen that the cliché that diplomacy consists primarily of demure small talk does not hold true. Slobodan Milosevic was not the only one to experience this. As his wife Kati Marton once put it, his ambition was to “do something, not be someone”. Kati a warm welcome to you, I’m delighted that you’re here today! So, doing something rather than being someone, that was the order of the day in Berlin in 1994.

To Richard Holbrooke it was clear that the strength of the transatlantic link would not be maintained solely by the existence of an external existential threat once the Cold War had come to an end and Germany had been reunified. New webs had to be spun across the Atlantic. He had a great deal of trust in this new Europe but equally made high demands of it. Europe should take responsibility for its own future and security in the very places where it was being questioned and challenged – such as in the Balkans. Holbrooke wanted to create a place for mature, informed dialogue across the Atlantic, as a living expression of the community of shared values which he felt so strongly about.

Ideas in the place of infantry, words in the place of weapons – and not in an abstract sense or on paper but in the form of real flesh and blood encounters. That was the idea upon which the American Academy was founded.


How often since then have we made our way to this villa on the banks of Wannsee? This villa which before the time of the Nazis belonged to the Arnholds, the Jewish banking family whose descendants so very generously helped to convert it into this wonderful meeting place, in order to see and hear from the best thinkers that America has to offer: artists and scholars, philosophers and poets. And I’m delighted that members of this family are here with us today – thank you to your family, Nina von Maltzahn and Andrew Gundlach!

It must be said that some in Germany still hold and nurse their prejudice towards American culture for its supposedly shallow nature. The American Academy and its many fellows have always served as living proof that this is a false perception.

Holbrooke, this man of many talents, helped the Academy get off to a good start. He mobilised money and friends and throughout his life he cared for this young institution with particular devotion and interest. I’m extremely pleased that, in his honour, the Academy has created a Holbrooke Forum which not only keeps his memory alive but which embodies his ethos of looking forward and seeking solutions to the great challenges of our time. For that is what he always sought to do – find practical solutions to do something about the violence, poverty and suffering in the world. Solutions which, step by step, would bring us closer to peace and justice and offer all people the freedom to thrive – in the Balkans, in Africa, in Afghanistan.


Which challenge would Holbrooke devote himself to today, in a world whose order seems to be out of joint? Would it be the simmering crisis in eastern Ukraine which threatens the very peaceful order in Europe that he personally invested so much energy and effort in building? Or the threat from the gangs who call themselves the “Islamic State”, using religion as a cloak to justify the diabolical horror that they are wreaking in Iraq and Syria? Or perhaps once again the future of the transatlantic partnership and friendship which meant so much to him?

Just as for the first time in history people in Germany were enjoying the gift of being surrounded by friendly neighbours on all sides, the United States suffered the shock of the 9/11 attacks. Since then we’ve formed divergent opinions of the challenges facing the world more than once, and more than once have we drawn differing conclusions. However in today’s complex world, as free democracies and as champions of a free and peaceful world order, we are connected by far more than we are separated by. How can we translate this affinity into practical, joint action to develop a new world order? That is a challenge that we must tackle, yet above all it is one which confronts the next generation who did not experience the Cold War themselves.


If we are to win over the younger generation for this partnership, it is not enough for us to simply shrug off the loss of trust caused by the NSA affair and Snowden revelations. We need a transatlantic dialogue which enables us to discuss the challenges posed by our digital future, to reach mutual understanding and to come up with joint solutions.

We must succeed in retrieving the great project of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the TTIP, from the haze of rumours and misperceptions surrounding it and making it what it should be – a project to jointly form standards, norms and values which set the bar for the rest of the world. Not a project of globalisation in favour of corporate interests but one promoting a process of globalisation which gives life and substance, far beyond our borders, to our ideas on the right way of doing business, on social justice, on decent work, on the right to freedom and protection, on democracy, on quality of life and its compatibility with the environment.


In the world of today political systems are competing at full throttle. Our Western democracy has one characteristic which, despite the many difficulties we face, gives me cause for hope when I look to the future – the ability to call itself into question and evolve. That is our strength in a world which is changing at a dramatic pace and where the ability to learn and adapt is thus increasingly vital. I think that is the reason why many people in the world continue to look to us with great expectations – to Europe as much as to America. Democracy is strong when it does not get caught up in ideology or trepidation, but when instead it confronts problems face on, in a realistic manner, and provides space for free thinking. This is exactly what Germany has achieved internally. We have undertaken economic reforms and made our society more open, even though it wasn’t easy. Germany now has a strong economy and is more open as a society precisely because we were not complacent, but instead were able to take criticism. Germany needs to apply this free thinking to foreign policy too, for our country is probably more closely intertwined with the world than any other country of a similar size. Our prosperity and our security depend on us avoiding the mentality that we are an island.


It is exactly this open-minded approach, which stretches across the Atlantic, that the American Academy stands for. It breathes life into it on a daily basis. It spreads the charm and fruits of critical thinking. And there is one person who invites this, who encourages it, spurs it on, provokes, inspires and drives it – and who has been doing so for many years. The great spirit of this place is embodied by Gary Smith.

“Nothing is possible without men” according to Monnet. Without Gary the Academy would never have become what it is today. And it is difficult for us to imagine this meeting place without him. In the past two decades, he not only attracted hundreds of America’s best thinkers to Berlin, he managed to make them leave the best of themselves here – their ideas and enthusiasm, their passion and their friendship.

Dear Gary, this evening you and your colleagues deserve our particular thanks, admiration and recognition. That the American Academy has grown, that it has grown up and left its intellectual mark on this city in so many places is overwhelmingly thanks to you and your inexhaustible energy, your devotion to this country, your insatiable curiosity – and of course also to your truly American talent as a gifted networker and terrific fundraiser.

The friendship and partnership between the United States and Germany needs institutions such as the American Academy, they need people like Gary Smith and they need active support from you, indeed from us all. Another particular thanks goes to your family and your wonderful wife! Dear Chana, dear Gary – America and Germany have literally grown on each other, both within the American Academy and on a personal level too.I don’t think that anyone here in this room can really imagine how the Academy will go on without Gary Smith. Yet we all know that you’ll never be far away! I for my part, everyone in this room and your institution – the American Academy – all know that we can continue to build on your friendship and wisdom. And so I can say with every confidence – see you soon!

Related content


Top of page