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What Do Chicago, Boise, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix Have in Common with Germany?

From October 2018 until November 2019 the German government sponsored “Deutschlandjahr USA – The Year of German-American Friendship”, working together with the Association of German Industries and other partners, such as the American Council on Germany, to organize various initiatives, presentations, and events under the motto “WunderbarTogether” with the aim to strengthen the transatlantic partnership by spreading knowledge about Germany within the United States. Since 1952 the American Council on Germany (ACG) has been one of the strongest pillars supporting transatlantic friendship and working to provide knowledge about the two countries and build trust between them.

At the invitation of the ACG last year, I had the opportunity to speak in Chicago and to participate in a series of Community Town Halls in  Boise, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix, promoting knowledge of Germany and discussing at the community level all kinds of cultural, economic, security, and civil society issues. As a member of the German Bundestag, the chance to engage with average U.S.-citizens, politicians, business people, and journalists about all aspects of our transatlantic relationship was a great way to help me understand the different perceptions we hold of each other’s countries and also the necessity to defend our common values in these troubled geopolitical times.

Ever since the end of World War II the transatlantic relationship has played a major role in shaping the world of today. Western values such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights have forged a cross border alliance where Europe and the United States stand together. This value-based alliance is not a “given thing” and needs to be redefined every generation.

Germany and the United States have a closely linked history of friendship and support, for neither the Federal Republic of Germany nor the European Union would exist without the American support and the value-based partnership. Still there are many challenges that threaten our friendship from the inside and outside. Every partnership relies on trust and knowledge of the other. So do transatlantic relations. The alliance can only sustain itself if both sides of the Atlantic know and trust each other. Unfortunately, this trust and knowledge can slip away, especially if we don’t renew it from time to time. My participation in these community town halls has renewed my trust and confidence in the relationship.

Beginning in Chicago at the International House of the University of Chicago, I discussed extensively the political and cultural differences between the United States and Europe. The important role that school and student exchange programs play in building bridges between our two countries quickly crystallized in the discussions with the students. Picking up on cultural differences, I also had the opportunity to meet small- and medium-sized companies (the infamous German “Mittelstand”) based in the U.S. We discussed a wide range of topics, such as TTIP and its advantages and disadvantages for companies like Haribo, Jägermeister, and other well-known German companies.

I then traveled to Boise, Idaho for a two-day town hall. With around 60 guests and great Swabian food and drinks provided by Das Alpenhaus, a local German restaurant started by a former American exchange student to Germany, we watched a film screening of the award-winning German film “Good Bye Lenin!”, a comedy depicting the changes that took place with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In a subsequent panel discussion and Q&A we devoted ourselves entirely to the memory of the fall of the Berlin Wall and discussed the differences between East and West Germany. The following day, joined by the local community, high school and university students, journalists and local decision makers from Boise including Mayor David Bieter, we discussed German-American economic relations in the context of Idaho’s economic development, the complex topic of immigration, and in an especially exciting discussion with Senator Jim Risch of Idaho and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the foreign policy priorities of our two countries.

One of the absolute highlights of my trip was getting to meet the “Candy Bomber”, Colonel Gail Halvorsen, shortly before his 99th birthday. During a Town Hall meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, Halvorsen gave insights into the time of the Berlin Airlift on 1948 and 1949, when the focus of transatlantic relations was the reconstruction of Germany and the freedom of West Berlin. To this day, the former DC3 pilot and war hero is in contact with people who were able to take courage because of his tireless efforts and the dropping of sweets for the children in enclosed West Berlin. It was not only an honor to meet him, but also a huge inspiration that will certainly influence my future political actions. We celebrated German Unity Day on October 3rd in another discussion with Congressman Rob Bishop, among others, with whom we discussed the difficult topic of international security and the challenges facing the U.S. and Germany. The topics of growing populism in Europe and the U.S. as well as the growing social inequalities in our countries offered many interesting points for reflection and introspection for the panel participants and guests.

In Phoenix, Arizona, we concluded the town hall events discussing the interconnectedness of the transatlantic economy, shared security challenges, and how our two countries support each other on a range of global issues. Surrounded by the beautiful sunny weather of Phoenix and enjoying Bavarian culinary specialties like Leberkäse, Laugenbrötchen, Sauerkraut, and O’Batzda, I truly believe our frank and open discussions helped strengthen the German-American friendship and inspired those in attendance to better appreciate the shared values, opportunities and challenges between our two countries.

To this day, the transatlantic relationship has had a decisive influence on world history. Since the Second World War, our relationship has developed into a friendship and alliance without which the European continent would be completely different today. It was therefore wonderful to see how we were able to enter into people-to-people dialogue in various communities in the United States about the past and future of the German-American relationship in order to maintain and celebrate friendship despite our occasional differences at the political level!

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic need to make a greater effort to participate in community town halls like what I experienced. They are fantastic opportunities to exchange knowledge, dispel misconceptions, and build trust between our two countries. I remain steadfast in the belief that gaining knowledge about each other’s views and building up mutual understanding is vital to sustaining the transatlantic alliance now and in the future.

Alexander Kulitz is a member of the German Bundestag in the Free Democratic Party (FDP) since 2017 and is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and deputy member of the Committee on Labor and Social Affairs and the Subcommittee on Foreign Cultural and Educational Policy.

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