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Sustainable dialogue trumps political speed dating

Michael Knigge
October 3, 2014

As the Aspen Institute in Germany celebrates its 40th anniversary, DW’s Michael Knigge has a personal appreciation of the institute’s work on transatlantic dialogue.

USA Fahne Brandenburger Tor Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

There are numerous programs at think thanks and organizations in Europe, the United States and beyond that are dedicated to fostering international exchange and dialogue. Most work like this: The participants meet for a day or a weekend in some venue to discuss pressing global challenges during the day and socialize at night.

That is certainly useful, because talking and getting to know one another are hardly ever wrong, but the long-term effects of these brief encounters are often negligible. First, because it is a little like speed-dating. It can be difficult to establish meaningful connections with a large group of different people in a very short amount of time. And second, because it is a little like the big bang. After the single major event there often is nothing but silence.

Not a one-off

All of that was different at the Aspen Institute in Berlin's German-American Young Professionals Program, in which I took part in 2005 and 2006. (Yes, one should always take the names of these programs with a grain of salt.) What made the program so attractive was the fact that it did not just consist of a one off-meeting, but that it spanned a year and a half.

Deutsche Welle Michael Knigge
Image: DW/P. Henriksen

During that period, our eclectic group, consisting of White House officials, academics, think tankers, bankers and a couple of journalists from Germany and the US, came together for a weekend a total of four times. We met twice in Berlin and one time each in Brussels and Washington.

Knowing that trying to solve the world's problems – as is customary in such seminars - while simultaneously networking would not have to be cramped into a single weekend worked wonders.

Spirited debate

To be sure, we did our fair share of global problem-solving, tackling hot button issues, like energy security, the Middle East and the future of transatlantic relations. But since we had ample time – and briefings by local experts – to digest and discuss them, our debates seemed less breathless and more substantive than is often the case.

At this point, a word about then-Aspen Institute director Jeff Gedmin is in order. Gedmin, who was generally considered George W. Bush's unofficial ambassador in Germany with neoconservative leanings, – arguably with some justification – was a controversial figure. But what he had, unlike many official US ambassadors, was not only impeccable German, but a real love for spirited, political debate. His knowledge of Germany coupled with his interest in political discourse helped shape the program and made it different.

Lasting impression

To clear our heads from the often lively discussions, we would take in a public viewing of Germany's 2006 World Cup opener (Germany beat Costa Rica 4-2), cook a meal together under the guidance of a professional chef or stroll the streets of Berlin, Washington or Brussels.

As a result, our four transatlantic get-togethers left a stronger impression on me then many similar ventures. To this day – eight years later - I am still in regular contact with members of our group on both sides of the Atlantic.

Aspen Germany's 40th anniversary is therefore a good occasion to say thank you for that and express my hope that expansive, but probably more sustainable programs like these remain possible.