Former foreign policy commentator and spokesman to the UN under the George W. Bush administration Richard Grenell arrived in Berlin earlier this week a freshly minted ambassador, much to the relief of the transatlantic community in the capital and around the country. After over a year without an ambassador, politicians and the public alike were relieved to finally have their direct line to the U.S. president.
As part of the announcement, the ambassador fired off several tweets stating that German companies should “wind down operations (in Iran) immediately” and then followed up defending his directness as being directly compliant with White House talking points. These tweets were not well received in Berlin, and the surge of optimism that came with the ambassador’s arrival quickly dissipated. Regardless of the administration’s next move, European partners — and particularly Germany — will be critical allies in the pursuit of policies that prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon among other global crisis too numerous to list here.
German culture, and particularly German professional culture, does not take kindly to the theatrical back-and-forth the president prefers in his tweets. Particularly in the political sphere, Germans are measured, methodical, and generally seek consensus before taking a decision. This was particularly visible in the most recent coalition talks, where Merkel chose to make major policy concessions and form another grand coalition with the center-left Social Democrats (SDP) rather than rule in a minority government.
The Federal Republic has never had a minority government and the grim reaper of the Third Reich looms over the idea. This deep commitment to consensus building and no-nonsense negotiation will directly conflict with a Trumpian approach to diplomacy.
Germany today is a dynamic and multifaceted society with a lot of opportunities for transatlantic collaboration and relationship building that fall outside of Trump’s indiscriminate rage about trade surpluses and defense spending. To understand and strengthen the relationship through these less visible ties, Ambassador Grenell is going to need to be prepared to use some nuance and respect in his communications with the public and with policymakers.
Meeting the Germans halfway will help him to sell Trump’s ideas in a very tough and generally well-informed market that happens to be one of the United States’ most important allies. Grenell, as the highest-ranking gay man in the administration, also has the opportunity to be a more modern face of an administration that many Germans view as backward and old-fashioned. The ambassador will face serious headwinds in German public opinion — just 11 percent of Germans have confidence in the U.S. president — but eloquently conveying your knowledge of and connections to Germany goes a long way in successful diplomacy in Berlin.
Being able to express some kind of genuine interest in Germany other than playfully referencing Danke Schön will go a long way in earning the respect, if perhaps not the agreement, of Germans.
Being an American diplomat in Germany is most successful when representatives are able to highlight the real people and motivations behind policy decisions in addition to the two countries’ deep and enduring ties to one another. It is a relationship that can often be self-sustaining through well-established ties between individual citizens and civil society organizations.
Even during times of disagreement, Germany and the United States are naturally inclined to interact with positive results for both sides. Ambassador Grenell will find a much more receptive audience if he transitions his tone from one of combative cable news commentator to explainer of the United States and its diverse populace, including the voices of Trump voters.
Heidi Obermeyer is a German Chancellor Fellow from the United States at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP e.V.) in Berlin, Germany.