By Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)
UCLA International Institute, May 17, 2017 — From the very beginning, John Emerson’s term as ambassador to Germany was extremely eventful. “Consider the following events that occurred [during my tenure],” said Emerson. “I experienced the NSA [U.S. National Security Agency] disclosures, the Russian incursion [into] the Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea, civil war in Syria, the brutality of ISIL, the metastasizing of terrorism in Europe and the United States, the resilience of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Greek financial crisis and the greatest movement of refugees through Europe in history at any time since the end of the second World War.”
Emerson delivered the 2016/17 Bernard Brodie Distinguished Lecture on the Conditions of Peace, sponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations. Held yearly at UCLA since 1980 in honor of UCLA scholar and professor Bernard Brodie (1910–78), past speakers have included scholars and dignitaries, such as former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Senator George Mitchell and President Jimmy Carter.
A difficult beginning
One event in particular thrust Emerson into the spotlight: the 2013 revelation that the NSA had been surveilling the private phone conversations of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden made the surveillance public knowledge right after Emerson moved into his office in Berlin.
“That was quite the way to begin one’s term as ambassador,” Emerson said. “After the news of the NSA surveillance broke, I made a decision that I was going to go out into Germany and travel the country and meet with reporters, editorial boards, college students and town halls. I tried to address the issue as well as I could,” he explained.
The ambassador hoped to assuage the fears and concerns of the German public by appearing on German morning talk shows and visiting the Bundestag (the German parliament) to explain U.S. actions. Although the State Department didn’t allow him to speak quite as openly and directly about the surveillance as he would have liked, Emerson believed that his willingness to speak as candidly as possible with German civilians and officials helped maintain the relationship between the two countries.
While the NSA scandal was the subject of scrutiny and discussion within Germany and worldwide, the larger German concern at the time was the impending U.S. pivot to Asia. “From the minute I stepped onto German soil, the U.S. interest in Asia was all that I heard about from officials,” said Emerson. “There was great concern about what our pursuit of trade agreements in Asia would mean for the established transatlantic relationship.
“While the German public was outraged by the spying allegations,” continued the speaker, “the concerns of the German government were much less about being listened to covertly and much more about the likelihood that the scandal would undermine our crucial partnership....
“During the early post-war years, the transatlantic partnership was formed out of a commitment to the European project, with a goal of a full democratic Europe that was whole, free and at peace,” explained the ambassador. Referring to the process that originally solidified the U.S.-German relationship, he said, “It was a project fueled by a commitment to mutual security, prosperity and trust, which has proven to be one of the great success stories of world history.”
People in both the U.S. and Germany saw the 2013 NSA disclosures as a threat to the long-standing relationship. “Fortunately, after more than three years of working together through a multitude of challenges, we were able to rebuild this trust,” said the ambassador. “This is perhaps best illustrated by the extraordinarily close partnership that developed between President Obama and Chancellor Merkel,” he added. Emerson noted that Barack Obama will be visiting Berlin this summer for his first post-presidential foreign trip — at the invitation of Angela Merkel.
New challenges: Election interference and populism
While Emerson believed the relationship between Germany and the United States had improved during his tenure, he worried that a new crop of issues could threaten the partnership between the U.S. and Europe as a whole. Prime among these issues are Russian interference in elections and the rise of populism on both continents.
“The unwavering commitment of the U.S. to the European project is more important now than at any time since the end of the Cold War,” said Emerson. He reminded the audience that the computers in the German Bundestag were subject to Russian hacking in early 2016, well in advance of upcoming German federal elections this September. Emerson also worried that Angela Merkel could be targeted by Russian propaganda in the same way that Emmanuel Macron and Hillary Clinton were in the French and U.S. presidential elections, respectively.
“Deep engagement with our European allies in both NATO and the EU is essential,” said Emerson. “At a time when our shared values of rule of law, free elections with an informed electorate and freedom of press, speech and religious expression are on attack around the globe, we need to stand with our allies to defend them.”
While it is important for European allies in NATO to “carry a much bigger load” in the future by funneling a larger percentage of their GDP towards defense spending, noted the ambassador, the alliance remains critically important regardless of how much each member state contributes. “Our continued support of NATO is essential to maintaining global stability and deterring aggression in what Vladimir Putin believes to be Russia’s sphere of influence,” he said.
Economic inequity a priority issue
Emerson paid particular attention to the economic factors that are currently driving anti-American and anti-EU sentiment. “Many American and European workers and families have felt the localized costs of globalization, automation, [the] financial meltdown and jobs being shipped overseas without necessarily feeling the benefits of trade, which are far more removed from their lives, but also very real,” he said.
“Any trade and economic negotiations between the EU and the U.S. must include policies which address the fact that many have been left behind by the rapid pace of globalization and automation,” he remarked. If such policies are not included in future agreements, the ambassador feared European right-wing populist movements that reject the European Union and partnership with America would see a resurgence in years to come.
“Only by addressing these concerns on both sides of the Atlantic, can we be confident that the European project — insurmountable in the past and critical to the future — will continue to thrive and progress in the face of today's challenges,” concluded Emerson. He ended his address by recounting what he considered to be the most important thing he had learned during his time as U.S. ambassador to Germany: “One of the most critical conditions of global peace is a strong and unified Europe, working in partnership with the United States.”
See the full video of the talk here.