An Interview with Mr. Fred Kempe of the Atlantic Council

This interview was conducted by Siobhan Heekin-Canedy, Web Staff Editor of The Fletcher Forum.

FF: As a journalist with the Wall Street Journal you covered some of the most historic events of the twentieth century, including the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Have these experiences shaped the way that you’ve approached your role at the Atlantic Council, and if so how?

FK: They absolutely have influenced my work at the Atlantic Council, and also my choice to come here in the first instance. I was at the Wall Street Journal for more than twenty-five years and, as you say, I had the good fortune to do what the Washington Post publisher Philip Graham famously called, “Writing the first draft of history.” When you’re there on the ground floor you really see the way things unfold, and you see the way that at history’s inflection points, determined individuals and countries have outsized influence.

The period that really shaped my life was the Cold War, and particularly its end, starting with the labor strikes in Poland that I covered in 1980 through to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I came to believe in the power of American influence and power, when properly applied alongside allies. And that, of course, is what the Atlantic Council is entirely about.

Over time as an objective journalist I lost some of that objectivity, and I came to believe deeply in the potential of America to do good in the world and to shape the world positively. Conversely, I also came to appreciate the potential for America to have a bad influence when we’re disengaged and make the wrong decisions. I wanted to be more active in working on the policies that promoted constructive U.S. engagement in the world alongside allies. So that’s why I’m here at the Atlantic Council.

FF: I know that Germany is a country you remain very focused on and involved with. Could you comment on Angela Merkel’s recent announcement that she will be stepping down? What do you think the future holds for Germany post-Merkel?

FK: I see Germany being central to the European future, just as it was leading up to both world wars. Germany is just as important now in determining whether Europe stays close to the United States, whether Europe integrates itself, or whether Europe begins to fall apart. Germany’s history is almost a morality story: the country goes through World War Two, experiences war crimes, the Holocaust, the Third Reich, and is then divided. But then it is reborn as a democratic country—with the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany (East Germany was of course in the Communist camp)—and then through reunification it has an historic opportunity given to it, almost as a gift, to do well for its people and to do good in the world in terms of driving freedom, democracy, open markets, and by binding Europe.


To see the rest of this article, go to The Fletcher Forum.

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