Diplomatic Connections Articles

An Interview with German Consul General in Chicago

By James A. Winship, Ph.D.

Perhaps it is Germany's federal system of government in which the German states (länder) retain substantial powers and celebrate their distinct cultural identities that gives Herbert Quelle, Germany's Consul General in Chicago, a deep respect for the importance of regional identity in the United States. Or, perhaps it is the fact that as a fledgling diplomat his first overseas posting was to the German consulate in Los Angeles that gives him an appreciation of the continental sweep and cultural diversity of the United States. Whatever the case, Ambassador Quelle is quick to tell his countrymen and his diplomatic colleagues that Chicago and the Midwest should be "recognized as what this region truly is — the heart and soul of America. I tell people who only visit the East and the West Coasts that such a visit is like having a sandwich without the filling between the bread halves."

And, no I didn't make a mistake by referring to "Ambassador" Quelle. For purposes of clarity we have identified this senior German diplomat by his current title — Consul General. He heads the German Consulate-General in Chicago, which has responsibility for 13 states ranging from Ohio to the Dakotas and from Minnesota and Wisconsin to Kentucky, Missouri and Kansas. But, prior to his most recent postings in the United States, first at the German Consulate-General (2013 – 2014) in Boston and now in Chicago, Quelle was the German Ambassador in Baku, Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic with substantial oil and natural gas resources on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

By the traditions of diplomatic protocol, once a diplomat has served as an ambassador, that person may always be addressed by that title, though only currently serving ambassadors are recognized with the honorific "excellency." Nevertheless, Herbert Quelle is an "excellent" man trained not only in the arts of diplomacy, but also in sciences, economics and fine arts. Before joining the German Foreign Service he thought to become a science teacher, and alongside the demands of his diplomatic career he is a talented pianist, trained musicologist, jazz aficionado and songwriter.

After beginning his diplomatic career in the Federal Foreign Office in Bonn, Consul General Quelle moved to Los Angeles for a three-year consular appointment. Then, after another stint at the Foreign Office in Bonn, he was posted to the German Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa. From there, he watched the Berlin Wall come down and the two Germanys reunite to become one. From South Africa he moved to Havana, Cuba, as Deputy Chief of Mission. Interspersed with a series of increasingly responsible positions in the Federal Foreign Office, Mr. Quelle served as Head of Economic Affairs at the German Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, and later as Head of Economic Affairs in the German Embassy in London.

The richness of Ambassador Quelle's diplomatic experience enhanced by his wide ranging education and his voracious cultural appetite led Harvard University to name him a Fellow at its Weatherhead Center for International Affairs in 2013 – 2014. This highly respected program brings together senior diplomats, military officers, politicians, journalists, international civil servants, leaders of non-governmental organizations, and business leaders from around the world to share their expertise, gain greater insight from the perspectives of others and pursue research interests in an academic setting. In the words of the university, "The single characteristic the Fellows share is leadership in international affairs, as demonstrated by their record of past achievement and the promise of future accomplishments."

Consul General Quelle was kind enough to share his career, insights and intellect with Diplomatic Connections. Sorry, but we couldn't arrange to have him play any of his songs for you!

Diplomatic Connections: Consul General Quelle, what influenced you to pursue a diplomatic career?

Consul General Quelle: I studied English language and literature as well as political science originally with the idea of becoming a high school teacher. In the final semester I decided to give the Foreign Service a try, and to my own surprise I got in!

Diplomatic Connections: What can you tell us about some of the lessons you learned in your early diplomatic training that you still use today?

Consul General Quelle: We were taught that we need to be flexible. Our mission is to represent German interests and German concerns globally, and to do so in ways that are sensitive to the particular situation of the country, people and government to which we are posted.

Diplomatic Connections: Is it fair to say that there are more women in the diplomatic service now than when you first entered?

Consul General Quelle: There are fortunately more women in the German Foreign Service today, but there are still not as many as we would like. It seems still more difficult for a woman to find a partner who is willing to travel anywhere and to forego his own career than it is for a man to find a woman who is willing to follow him in his diplomatic career.

Diplomatic Connections: Could we turn for a moment to your experience in Azerbaijan as ambassador there? What was that experience like, with Azerbaijan struggling to find its way between its history as a Soviet republic and its independent experiments with democracy?

Consul General Quelle: Between Baku and Chicago, I served at our Consulate General in Boston. At the same time, I was a Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard, which permitted me to do some research work on my experiences in Azerbaijan. My goal was to understand in greater depth what the disintegration of the Soviet Union meant for the former republics and to what extent they have been able to democratize independently from Moscow. Of course, when I picked my topic in July 2013 I didn't know it was going to become so hot with the Russian annexation of Crimea, Russian interventionist policies in Ukraine and the ensuing discussion of a new Cold War.

Replying to your question, not in my official capacity now but rather on the basis of my research, I would say that Azerbaijan is unfortunately not developing in ways that one might have hoped. It is continuing on its autocratic path. If you look at Freedom House or Bertelsmann Foundation's monitoring of the political and economic transition of former Soviet republics, they all tell you that democratic progress has been mostly slow and halting, including in Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan should be treated with the same respect with which we treat any sovereign state.

I appreciate in particular that Azerbaijan, with its largely Muslim population, practices exemplary secularism. Azerbaijan is of considerable strategic importance, not merely for its location but also for its oil and gas resources. It has an immensely rich culture, which I admire. I am a great fan of music, and I love their local musical tradition called "Mugham," songs that combine classical poetry with musical improvisation in a series of story cycles. But, I am personally very sad about the situation of individual human rights in the country.

Diplomatic Connections: How does being consul general compare to being ambassador? What are the primary differences between the two positions?

Consul General Quelle: By definition, a consul general focuses on consular and legal matters. That task accounts for about 50 percent of the workload and the resources of the office. In addition, we have obligations in public diplomacy, political reporting, cultural, press and economic matters. The task of pursuing political objectives on behalf of the German government is left to the embassy. But we network with politicians and analyze the political process in the states and in the cities that are within our geographic area of responsibility in order to help the embassy in its complex political tasks.

Diplomatic Connections: What do consulates accomplish that an embassy does not? Why are consulates important? Why invest resources in these outposts of German diplomacy at a distance from Washington, D.C.?

Consul General Quelle: Chicago is the third largest city in the United States, and much more important than is generally known in Germany. In a sense, it is part of my responsibility to reinforce the importance of the American heartland, the Midwest, to official German visitors and to potential German investors.

There are some 20 million Americans in the Midwest region who consider themselves as having some degree of German ancestry. That's a huge number in a region that has a total population of roughly 70 million, slightly under one-third of the entire population. It is important for Germany to build on this potential for strengthening our bilateral trans-Atlantic ties. The consulate is closer to the people in the Midwest than the embassy can ever be.

Diplomatic Connections: What is the consulate'srole in staying in contact with that very large German-American community across the United States? Does the German-American community play a role in on-going contacts or promoting contacts between the U.S. government and the German government?

Consul General Quelle: My consulate is aware of the positive role the German-American community plays and I think that goes for the other German consulates as well. But, the German immigrant population has integrated so well into the fabric of the American life that the large majority is hardly recognizable as German-American. They generally lack the assertive identity and specific political agendas that other groups of immigrants may have.

I appreciate celebrating German-American Day, which on the one hand reminds us of the great contributions of German immigrants to the formation of the United States since 1683 and on the other hand of the broken relations during two World Wars in the past century, which must never happen again.

Diplomatic Connections: For years the German economy has been described as the "economic engine" of Europe or the "locomotive" of the European economy. Yet during the current economic slowdown in Europe, the German economy and its demands for stability and economic retrenchment across Europe have received a great deal of criticism. Some critical voices have gone so far as to suggest that the German demands for austerity measures by other European governments have acted as a brake on European economic recovery. What is and should be Germany's role as a European and global economic leader?
Consul General Quelle: Rather than looking at the brief slowdown in German economic growth during 2014, I would stress that we grew overall faster than in the two previous years. The German consumer has developed into a strong pillar of our economic performance. Critics of our alleged austerity overlook the fact that my government recently increased its investment program considerably and that Germany's budgetary discipline is key in securing the confidence of the financial markets in the survival of the eurozone. It is the responsibility of each individual eurozone member state to avoid an out-sized deficit. We believe that far-sighted economic policy approaches with structural reforms are paying off.

Diplomatic Connections: Trade promotion isone of the consulate's major roles. The German economy is extremely export driven. Are there opportunities for American companies to invest in Germany? Are there German companies bringing new investments to the United States, especially to the historically industrial states in your Midwest region?

Consul General Quelle: We work very closely with the German-American Chamber of Commerce in the Midwest and with AmCham [the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany]. Each of the American states also has a trade promotion office, and we stay in very close contact with these offices. The consulate helps to catalyze the intricate investment decisions that must be made and helps to streamline the mechanics of trans-Atlantic trade, the details of which can sometimes seem overwhelming. There are more than 2,500 members of the German-American Chamber of Commerce, and its role is to promote and sustain business opportunities in both directions. There are frequent, often industry-centered, trade delegations going back and forth between the two countries.

Diplomatic Connections: American education is in the throes of a wide-ranging debate on educational reform. The German educational model of parallel tracks, university education but also an emphasis on vocational-technical education in close cooperation with German industry, is repeatedly held up as a model the United States should consider. Could you explain how the German system works and perhaps suggest what lessons the United States might draw from the German experience?

Consul General Quelle: The German vocational initiative provides a unique combination of theory and practice, learning and working. There are multiple educational paths after high school in Germany. They are both an alternative to and a complement to university education. The system works closely with local firms to identify what jobs need to be filled and to define the skill sets that are needed to perform those jobs in the present and on into the future. It is a model of vocational training that is recognized as highly effective worldwide. The program has proven exceptional in developing a highly skilled, well-qualified workforce.

Diplomatic Connections: How has diplomacy changed in the course of your career — from your days as a trainee to your days as ambassador and now as consul general in Chicago?

Consul General Quelle: There are two answers to that question: first, the exponentially increased speed of communication; and second, the competition with what I call "the reporter on the street" made possible by the accessibility of media technology. The ability of anyone to project an image in real time around the globe presents a huge challenge. It is not enough to have communication skills. Now diplomats are asked to make split-second judgments under the pressure of instantaneous media coverage. There is a real, and sometimes costly, trade-off between immediacy and time for reflection.

The speed of communication combined with the widespread access to technology poses many new questions about the reliability of information and the accuracy of images and about the accountability of information sources — especially where the lightning fast commentary of talk show hosts and Internet bloggers often trades considered judgment and knowledge of the situation on the ground for visceral responses and emotional nationalism.

But, with this trend towards de-professionalization of journalism, I see huge new opportunities for diplomats. It is our task to bring a measure of considered reflection to the often heated discourse on trade, economics and national security. Given our training, we can insert needed historical and cultural background in order to add complexity and nuance to discussions of international issues. Perhaps even more importantly, we can bring to bear deeper knowledge of the situation on the ground in order to add depth to the shallow reporting that rapid news cycles encourage. Because we are diplomats, we remain accountable and are trustworthy for our governments.

Diplomatic Connections: What are some of the most important lessons you've learned over the course of your career? What would you pass on to the new generation of diplomats?

Consul General Quelle: You have to be proud of your country without losing your critical capacity to thoughtfully examine different perceptions about your country. One learns that often issues look different from abroad. And your host country has all the right in the world to be proud of its heritage and identity as well.

Diplomatic Connections: What are your greatest concerns for the future of your country?

Consul General Quelle: Perhaps the greatest challenge is to succeed with our "Energiewende," the transformation of our energy policy from carbon to renewables. Global warming is an undeniable fact and we have to undertake all possible efforts to remain under the two-degree threshold. On the other hand, relatively affordable energy is critical for our industrial base. We must remain competitive. We must secure employment. So there is a lot of pressure from that end on the government.

I see climate change as the most serious global problem with very direct consequences for the long-term security and the economic wellbeing of each individual country. We are making progress as the climate summit in Lima showed, but human nature finds it difficult to focus on long-term strategic goals. Cheap oil, plus the volatility of energy prices and supplies in general, is not conducive to keeping us focused. Given two options between a short-term advantage and the long-term optimum, governments tend to choose the first.

Diplomatic Connections: And, what are the greatest hopes you have for the future of your country?

Consul General Quelle: My greatest hope is that the unification process in Germany will be fully accomplished in the next few years. In the past 25 years we have made incredible progress given the unique task of harmonizing — in economic, political, social and cultural/scientific respects — two states that had for one generation existed side by side, but in different worlds. Regional and provincial differences and distinctions will always remain and that is perfectly all right. Diversity and multiculturalism are characteristics of a modern Germany, but the still existing invisible separation between the two Germanys will disappear.

I am further confident that we will not only maintain, but deepen, our excellent relationship with all our European partners. I see Russia recognizing and regretting its recent foreign policy mistakes and seeing its future in this framework and not in some adventurism.

Diplomatic Connections: Consul General, thank you very much for your time and for the thoughtful perspectives that you brought to our wide-ranging conversation.
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