Departing ambassador sanguine about U.S.-German relations

Wolfgang Ischinger could hardly have picked a less propitious time to begin his first day on the job as Germany’s ambassador to the United States.

The career diplomat had barely settled into his spacious office on the top floor of the Bauhaus-style German Embassy on Reservoir Road N.W. when Islamic fanatics changed history — and the difficulty of his new assignment — by attacking New York and Washington.

The devastating impact and aftermath of the terrorist attack on Washington, which Ischinger could see in the panoramic view from his office, as smoke billowed from the Pentagon, put him at the center of one of the stormiest periods in modern U.S.-German relations.

“My first workday at this desk was Sept. 11, 2001,” Ischinger recalled as he prepared to take up his new post as Germany’s ambassador to Great Britain. “I never had a chance to make a single courtesy call. … All of a sudden we were in the middle of a changed world. It has been the theme of my four and a half years here.”

Indeed, Ischinger was forced to confront one crisis after another in U.S.-German relations in the wake of Sept. 11, including the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the anti-American sentiment stirred up by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder during the German elections. 

And as Schroeder’s successor, Angela Merkel, completed a successful fence-mending visit to the White House recently, a new controversy erupted when The New York Times reported that German intelligence agents in Baghdad gave U.S. military commanders a copy of Saddam Hussein’s plan for the defense of Baghdad.

But Ischinger insists that Germany’s relations with the United States remain stronger than ever, despite the latest controversy, which he notes is based on a report the German government has categorically denied.

“We have had a good, productive and constructive relationship in many areas that has continued even through the crisis years [since 2001]. The German-American relationship is a solid one, and even the serious policy disputes did not affect the core of this relationship in any serious way.”

Even though he declares that U.S.-German cooperation continues to be strong in such areas as research, technology, trade and investment, higher education, and even intelligence, he concedes the obvious, that U.S.-German ties at the political and diplomatic level became badly frayed at times during his tenure,

“The one area where maybe things didn’t work out that well was between the top of the governments, at the White House and with Chancellor Shroeder, and probably also between the defense ministers because we had a serious policy difference on a very serious matter,” he said. “That was obvious, and everybody knows that. But in most other areas, our relationship continues to be constructive.”

He added: “That’s something I feel that I really learned, that this is not just a relationship that’s based on whether or not Mr. Bush likes Mrs. Merkel or Mr, Schroeder, but that the tone and effectiveness and the core of this relationship is based on mutual understanding and appreciation, and is much stronger than some people feel.”

Ischinger learned his fluent English while living for many years in this country; he was a young exchange student in Illinois, he earned a master’s degree at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston, and he began his diplomatic career at United Nations headquarters in New York

Ischinger said the foundation of U.S.-German ties is twofold: one, the generations of Americans who have spent time in Germany, and two, the business links between the two countries.

“The growth rate of German investment in the U.S. and, maybe even more importantly, American investment in Germany has continued totally without any [decline],” he said.

“It’s totally unaffected,” he said, even though a “handful of people” called his embassy to say they were so angry at Germany for opposing U.S. policy in Iraq that they were canceling their next BMWs.

Drawing on his experience as a participant in the Bosnia peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, Ischinger said he feels “very strongly that … we Europeans and you Americans, if we want to assure that we have a coherent approach to the security challenges that are confronting us, we must follow the model expressed by the term, ‘in together, out together.”

While that wasn’t the case in Iraq, he said, it was in Afghanistan, “where we can say it’s exactly ‘in together and out together,’ not only in military terms but also in political terms. This is why Mrs. Merkel has in her foreign-policy speeches placed so much emphasis on the central role of NATO, that NATO should be the place where all of us together make our security decisions. We should make them jointly, and not in Berlin or here in Washington.”

As he leaves for his new assignment in the capital of America’s strongest European ally, Ischinger says he will always be grateful for being given “the best diplomatic assignment Germany has to offer.

“This is a very friendly country. There’s this spirit of welcoming people. It was never difficult for me to be ambassador here. I was never given a bad time.”