A Tribute to Wolfgang Ischinger

US Marine Corps retired Gen. James L. Jones, Jr., interim chairman of the Atlantic Council board of directors, delivered this speech on March 1, 2018.

Distinguished guests, your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, Ambassador and Mrs. Ischinger.

It is a great honor for me to be with you in city of Berlin, which holds such historical significance to Germany and to the transatlantic alliance.

It is a particular pleasure to be able to pay an American tribute to my friend Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger at this evening’s gala in his honor.

Tonight, the American-Chamber of Commerce, Germany, recognizes Ambassador Ischinger for his unparalleled lifetime commitment to fostering German-American ties, and to his belief that a robust dialogue between Europe and the United States is as important today as it ever has been. 

Coming just days after the close of this year’s turbulent, contentious, and always fascinating Munich Security Conference, Ambassador Ischinger’s loyal dedication and commitment to diplomacy stands as a beacon of solidarity in a world that changes more rapidly than our institutions and many of our leaders can comprehend.

Like many in this room, I have come to watch with great admiration as Ambassador Ischinger’s remarkable career and achievements have grown and evolved. He has both been shaped by—and been responsible for shaping—Germany’s growing role in a fast-changing world, spanning the most important years of two very different centuries.

We are here tonight to pay tribute, in particular, to Ambassador Ischinger’s very unique role in helping to guide Germany through the opportunities and challenges of building a Europe “whole, free, and at peace.” And while we will focus on his enormous achievements, we should not fail to recognize the great contributions of his wife of fifteen years, Jutta, who has been at his side through the many years of service both have rendered to make the trans-Atlantic relationship the continuing and most essential pillar of hope on the planet. So, a special thank you to you tonight, Jutta, from all of us.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is the shared links to a more distant past which provides a common reference point for Ambassador Ischinger and me, and which continues to guide our personal and professional “transatlantic” instincts. In many ways it is why we do what we do and why we care about the health and vitality of our Euro-American community.

I hope I will not betray any secrets by saying this, but Wolfgang Ischinger was born in 1946 outside of Stuttgart less than a year after the conclusion of World War II, and three years later than me. That same year my father—a Marine World War II veteran of the war in the Pacific—moved our family to Paris, France as he began a twenty-seven year European career with International Harvester, a farm machinery company which participated in the Post-war reconstruction of agriculture in Western Europe.

Wolfgang and I grew up in different countries and in deeply different circumstances. But what binds us together is that we both came of age in post-war Europe and watched the Continent rise from the ashes of conflict. That experience has defined both of our lives, and, I suspect, many of the lives of people in attendance this evening  

America’s economic, military, diplomatic, and political commitment were key to Western Europe’s freedom and security during the ensuing Cold War. My childhood years in France enabled me to see the European perspective on the world, and forever reminded me of the important role the United States played in forging and preserving a democratic and peaceful Western Europe. During that period, I’m sure that my friend Wolfgang Ischinger was similarly marked during his adolescence.

As we became young adults, we chose different pathways in life. I left France to return to my native United States to study at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. I had ambitions to pursue a career in the foreign service after a three-year Marine Corps tour during the Vietnam War. Instead, I wound up serving my country as a Marine for forty years. While I was at Georgetown, Wolfgang also came to the western shore of the Atlantic, spending a year of high school in Watseka, Illinois as an exchange student. Upon returning to Germany, Ambassador Ischinger pursued his studies and became a German diplomat.

Ambassador Ischinger’s meteoric diplomatic career placed him in the most important roles and positions in his country as the Cold War was coming to a close and a new world order was taking shape. As we all know, he has been a central figure in helping his unified country navigate many changes and grow into a larger role on the world stage, all while remaining true to its European, transatlantic, and multilateral foundations.

As a reward for his accomplishments in shaping a post-Cold War Europe, Wolfgang was rewarded with a capstone job in Germany diplomacy—ambassador to the United States of America in 2001.

Just months after presenting his credentials, our respective worlds changed forever on September 11. My country went to war, and for the first time in its history, NATO invoked its Article 5 clause in solidarity with the United States. Ambassador Ischinger played a central role in articulating Germany’s support for the United States, and also in forging a political, military, and intelligence coalition to fight international terrorism.

Unfortunately, and tragically as we now know, darker times lay ahead for German-American relations. The debate over the war on Iraq soon pitted the United States and Germany against one another. But Wolfgang Ischinger had no time to sulk and hold grudges. Instead, he dedicated himself to finding opportunities to correct and advance this most important bilateral relationship wherever possible. It was during that difficult time that I came to know and admire the man we honor today. I was serving as commandant of the Marine Corps and, like him, I too believed that it was essential that the German-American relationship be repaired and restored to its former status for the good of our common goals, values, and aspirations.

By the time his tenure in Washington concluded in 2006, the American-German relationship has returned to firmer footing. Ambassador Ischinger was next posted as ambassador to the United Kingdom before retiring from the Federal Foreign Ministry in 2008.

Upon returning home, internationally recognized as one of Germany’s most capable diplomats, he was given a challenging but very important new task—to take over the chairmanship of the venerable Munich Security Conference and to bring it—and Germany’s foreign policy debate—firmly into the twenty-first century.

Having attended the Munich Security Conference since 1980, as the Marine Corps Senate liaison officer, and working for then US Navy Captain John McCain, I have a deep appreciation for the conference and its important contribution to its transatlantic ties. To have attended the conference now for over thirty-five years, is also to understand and appreciate the great changes he has brought about to modernize the conference’s agenda and activities.

The 2009 Munich Security Conference was my first opportunity to address the attendees in plenary session in my new capacity as President Obama’s national security advisor. As luck would have it, it was also Wolfgang’s first Munich Security Conference as its chairman.

Later that same year, I had the opportunity, as national security advisor, to brief the inaugural meeting of the Munich Security Conference “core group,” convened in Washington in cooperation with the Atlantic Council of the United States, an organization which I am privileged to chair today.

The core group dialogue is one of many innovations Wolfgang has brought to the conference during his chairmanship, as he understood and understands the power of the Munich Security Conference brand in Washington and around the world. He also correctly saw the potential for the conference to bring the transatlantic dialogue and German world view to key capitals like Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Tel Aviv, and Abu Dhabi.

Under Ambassador Ischinger’s leadership the Munich Security Conference has become a much more global conference which represents the diversity of twenty-first century security challenges. Wolfgang has made the city of Munich synonymous with security and has made the Munich Security Conference into a global brand with influence around the world. He has also turned the conference into a venue for Germany to discuss its own growing role in European and world affairs and to push the boundaries of the security debate within Germany.

This year’s Munich Security Conference might have left many discouraged, considering the vast array of conflicts on the international agenda. The discussions revealed that we are once again confronted with great challenges, both among traditional friends as well as with adversaries. Some have wondered if we are moving toward an irreparable transatlantic fracture as the United States pursues its “America First” policy. Hopefully the intent of such a policy is being better understood, but I am confident that that it was never meant to imply “America Alone,” without its European friends and allies.

The fact of the matter is that the transatlantic relationship remains indispensable for the United States and Europe alike. Even in an “America first” world, the United States needs Europe and Germany to accomplish many of its international goals in a multipolar world. And Europe needs the United States and NATO for its collective defense in the “world of carnivores” that Foreign Minister Gabriel described in his recent remarks at the Munich Security Conference.

We will all rely on Ambassador Ischinger as we navigate the turbulent years ahead. We will look to him for the wisdom and guidance borne of his many years of experience in German and international diplomacy. We will seek to emulate the example he set for consensus-building diplomacy and the art of finding a compromise in tough times. And most of all, we will need his continued contributions in fostering a robust and honest dialogue at the Munich Security Conference each February and at other points around the globe.

If we are able to follow the example that Wolfgang Ischinger has set and continues to uphold, I am confident that once again the United States and Europe can transcend the challenges of the moment and work toward a larger purpose based on our common interests and shared values.

Thank you, Wolfgang and Jutta, and congratulations for this well-deserved recognition. We are all the better for your continuing example which appeals to our better natures as citizens and human beings.

US Marine Corps retired Gen. James L. Jones, Jr. is interim chairman of the Atlantic Council board of directors.

Image: Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger attends at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 17, 2018. (REUTERS/Michaela Rehle)