“Not acceptable!”

It is the summer of 1997. I’m working in the Bundestag. There is the German-American Parliamentarian Group, made up of senators, congressmen and Bundestag members who meet twice a year, once in Germany, and once in the U.S., and they have many individual meetings throughout the year when any one of them is in the other capital.

This time the Bundestag is the host. The group meets in Bad Münstereifel, a lovely, quaint town about 45 miles southwest of Bonn. It has many remnants of the Middle Ages. An ancient wall encircles the town, with narrow cobblestone alleys and a stream winding through it. The morning air is cool and fresh. The mind wonders and wanders back into history.

The meetings are not intense. The purpose is relationship building. There are discussions, yes, and an agenda, too. But they are exploratory, about points of view and understanding. Austausch. Exchange. The second evening, after dinner, down in the Ratskeller, we are enjoying German wine. The mood is relaxed, friendly, gemütlich as Germans would say.

Suddenly one of the German parliamentarians stands up. Tall, strong build, focused, a determined look, she toasts the group briefly then announces that she would like to address a problem, a difference of opinion, between American foreign policy and the views of her political party, the Social Democrats (SPD), who at that time were in the opposition.

German direct vs. American indirect

She wanted to talk about Cuba, about the Helms-Burton Act, otherwise known as the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, which tightened the U.S. embargo on Cuba. She and her party were diametrically opposed to it. “This was absolutely unacceptable!”, she said.

The atmosphere in the group, in that Ratskeller, went from warm to cold within seconds. The Americans didn’t twitch a muscle. She continued, digging deeper and deeper. When her monologue was finished she remained standing. There was a pause. The U.S. chargé d’affaires (Acting Ambassador) stood up. He, a great admirer and friend of the Germans. He was first stationed as an Army officer, then made the switch into the Foreign Service.

Fluent in German, knowledgeable of their history and culture, he quietly and carefully stated that the United States, as a sovereign country, reserved the right to pass legislation which it deems to serve its foreign policy interests. He sat down as understatedly as he had stood up. Again there was silence. Not a movement. She, too, sat down. She was bewildered.

A side note. Earlier that day, during one of the meetings with all present, including support staff, a senior-level foreign policy advisor of the Free Democrats made a comment for all to hear about Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House. He commented about Gingrich‘s bad character, having served his wife divorce papers while she was in the hospital dying of cancer.

Clearly that was not a nice thing to do, but was it the right topic and tone for that kind of setting? One of the Americans, a Republican Congressman, raised his hand, cleared his voice, then politely begged to differ. He knew Gingrich as a colleague and a friend, found him to be a man of honesty and integrity. The room was silent. Not a movement. 

The Germans are direct. They believe in saying what you mean and meaning what you say.

But, wait. What’s so wrong with that? Americans are often nuanced, tolerant of ambiguity, diplomatic. Americans believe that indirectness allows people to say what they mean and mean what they say, without saying it explicitly. Right?

But, tact can be tactics. Tactics in the sense of not direct, not transparent, not honest. Do Americans not have their own screamers, accusers and “bomb-throwers” in politics and in the media?

Unfortunately, after those two incidents, the atmosphere never really improved in Bad Münstereifel.

“Not acceptable!”