“I’m very clear-eyed that the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal’s official name] has not helped control Iran.”
By Orit Arfa, JNS
U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell marked his first year in the German capital on May 8. In that short time, the ambassador advocated for American interests in Germany, which, in his case, also align with many Israeli interests.
He has encouraged German companies to cut ties with Iran, assisted in getting convicted terrorist Rasmeah Odeh ousted from Germany and is now advocating for Germany designating the Hezbollah political wing as a terrorist organization, as the United States and the United Kingdom have done. Those following his career, including his recent participation in March of the Living in Poland, know that the Jewish people have a good friend in Germany.
In a candid and at times personal interview, Grenell discussed his approach to social media and diplomacy, disagreements with Germany, the Iran deal, anti-Semitism, his worldwide push to decriminalize homosexuality and more. The following is an abridged version of the entire interview; the original can be viewed or read in the German version of the popular German online commentary magazine, Die Achse Des Guten (“The Axis of Good”).
Q: We “met” on Twitter. Do you use social media to connect to people? Is that rare, and what role does social media play?
A: I think social media has outed reporters’ political beliefs. They don’t understand when they’re posting comments on Facebook, for instance, that they’re actually outing themselves as conservative or an advocate of some sort for a party or a person. I think all of that has been good because it creates authenticity. One thing that I’ve learned in campaigns and in diplomacy is that people really respond to authenticity. They want you to be real, and that means not robotic and not always saying the right thing, and maybe making mistakes and admitting those mistakes.
I call myself an “imperfect follower of Christ.” I’m a Christian. I love learning about greater discipline in the Christian faith, but I’m not always successful at it. And I think the more you can kind of admit that you’re a human and that you have failures and that you’re not always perfect, the more people can relate to you. Because they look at politicians or diplomats who are stiff and perfect—and issuing statements perfectly critiqued by 12 people and poll-tested—as inauthentic. And I do think that people respond to that, and I think you kind of responded to that.
Q: Many ambassadors go to countries and they’re more ceremonial ambassadors. They issue nice statements, and go to social events and parties and speak at events, but it really seems like you came here to work. Would you say that that’s true? That you came here to really push for American and humanist interests in Germany?
A: Yeah, of course. That’s all I’ve ever done. When I started here, I told everybody at the embassy: “I’m a staffer.” I’ve written the memos. I’ve been the guy behind the scenes talking to the principal. And I have a heart of a staffer. I want to create a list—a “To Do” list—and I want to get things done.
I am somebody who asked for this job after working on the campaign closely with U.S. President [Donald] Trump. I wanted to be ambassador to Germany. One of the reasons why I asked for this job is because the Germans are really important to the American relationship. I spent eight years at the United Nations. I saw how important the E3—the French, the British and the Germans—are to getting things done. If you walk into the U.N. General Assembly Hall and you’re faced with a 192, 193 plaques of countries, names of countries all around the world … it’s pretty intimidating when you walk into that huge General Assembly Hall. But as an American, I think you are immediately overwhelmed with: “Whoa, I’m fighting for democracy, human rights, rule of law. Where are the Europeans, my friends, my allies?”
As an American, you know that your allies are the Europeans. And so, I wanted to come strengthen the relationship—the transatlantic relationship—between the United States and Germany. I do think it needed a little reforming. I think it needs to be strengthened through some changes. I think that we need to make our relationship stronger, and what that means is more defense spending, more sharing of the burdens. And I think that I wanted to work on those issues because I care about those issues.
Q: What would you consider one of your most important accomplishments, looking back?
A: You know, I love the team here at the embassy, to be honest. I think they are really hard-working, and when I came here we decided to put together kind of six points of a strategy—six things that this entire embassy would work on. And I think I’m most proud that the team here really embraced those, and got behind them and got excited and decided to benchmark themselves on those six priorities. So I would say working with a team, setting goals that everyone is focused on, and there’s a real energy here.
Take, for instance, NATO spending. We have talked long and hard about getting the Germans and the Europeans to increase NATO spending. It’s been a policy of the George W. Bush administration, of the Barack Obama administration. But a simple stat is that since 2016, Europeans have increased defense spending by $41 billion. That’s $41 billion that were not going to fight terrorism, to stand with the Western Alliance in order to combat the bad guys.
And so I think we’re accomplishing, although the Germans haven’t quite delivered on their 2 percent commitment to NATO yet, but I think that we are accomplishing things together where defense spending is increasing. That’s just one of many issues that I think this embassy is really excited about and feels like we’re making progress.
Q: Another major issue is Germany’s holding onto the 2015 Iran nuclear deal very strongly. Do you see that also as something that could be overcome?
A: I’ve worked on the Iran issue for a very long time at the United Nations, and so I know that the Iranian regime cheats. I know that they’re not honest. I know they’re duplicitous. Even the Iran deal has created an Iranian regime that’s more aggressive, and that has been more aggressive in Europe. So I’m very clear-eyed that the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal’s official name] has not helped control Iran.
You look at ballistic-missiles technology. You look at all of the malign activity. The good news is that the Germans and the Europeans agree with that. Even when we pulled out of the JCPOA and announced that we would Implement U.S. sanctions … the Europeans were not happy that we were doing that, and they issued a press release. But if you go back to their statement, it was very encouraging, actually.
I look at this issue very much with the glass half-full because in that statement where the Europeans said, “We’re so angry with the United States for getting out of the JCPOA,” if you look down further in that statement, they say, “Make no mistake. We are clear-eyed on Iran’s threats. We agree with the Americans that Iran is a threat. We agree that the ballistic-missile technology is a problem. We agree that they fund terrorism. We disagree on the tactic to stop that.”
The Europeans want to engage with the Iranians to try to get them to stop. We think we’ve tried to engage. It’s gotten worse.
And so, we’re trying to restrict the financing that goes to the regime. It’s a difference of tactics, but the goal is exactly the same.
Q: Israel and anti-Semitism are issues that are very close to your heart. Where does that come from?
A: It’s always so funny to get this question because I really wish that we had a second chair and my mom was here because, talking to my mom, you would you would clearly get your answer as to how this happened.
I grew up an evangelical Christian, and my mother has a long history in her family of evangelical roots from the beginning of the Azusa Street Ministry in Los Angeles, where evangelical churches started. And I have to tell you that growing up, there’s never been a moment in my life where my mother doesn’t talk about Israel, doesn’t pray for the peace of Israel, doesn’t always think about making sure that that God blesses Israel.
Growing up, and I’ve told this story before, my mom had a plaque above the sink that said, “Pray for the Peace of Israel.” That is just what my mom does every day. My dad would, too, but my dad passed away in 1999. I was trained by both of my parents and my whole family to really think about how God has blessed Israel, and that it’s a biblical absolute for Christians. And so that’s the way I was raised, and that’s my worldview. I don’t think we do enough to protect Israel.
I just look at my own situation. Israel is the great democracy in the region. You look at what they do to support gays and lesbians compared to other countries in the region, and it’s not even a question: the human-rights commitment for Israel is unquestioned.
And so, I think it’s an easy answer for me. It’s an easy policy to support. I will gladly do it, and I will continue to do it. It doesn’t seem like it’s a special thing for me. It’s innate.
Q: And support for the Jewish people? I’m sure that’s intertwined.
A: You just look at anti-Semitism and its growth—whether it’s in Europe or in the United States—and it saddens me. And it’s clear that we have a fight to do.
It’s a human problem. And we have to confront that, and I’m not satisfied with seeing an anti-Semitic act, and just issuing a statement after the fact and condemning it. Yes, it’s important. It should be widely and loudly condemned, but we have to do more to get to the root of the problem which, again, is a human problem across the board.
What I think that we have to do is, you know, as frustrating as it is, it’s an education issue and that takes time. But it also takes commitment, and it takes commitment now.
Q: So what can we expect for next year?
A: I think what I’m looking most forward to is just continuing our work on our priority issues, representing the president, the American people. We’re going to continue pushing on issues and continue finding ways that German companies and the German government need problems solved in the United States. It’s really a two-way street. I like to dig deep into issues, and so I’m looking forward to continuing those issues and finding new ones.
Q: You are arguably the most powerful American diplomat in Europe. How do you keep your sanity in humility and just realness, authenticity?
A: I keep my friends that I’ve had for my whole life, who call me “Ric” or “Uncle Ric.” I think it’s really important to stay connected to who you are.
I don’t think about it in terms like that because maybe I see the challenges, and I see the things that we have to do. I still think of myself as a staffer, and so I’m hungry to work hard and dig deep, and it was an adjustment for some people here, I think. I like to be called “Ric.” (Well, my real name is Richard. So sometimes, it’s just “Richard.”)
But for me, I think it’s really important to stay in the moment of what you’re responsible for. The Bible talks about: To whom much is given, much is required. And I feel that pressure—whether it’s a phone call from President Trump to say, “I need you to do this or that” or instructions from Washington.
There’s a lot to do, and so I’m wrapped up in the “To Do” list, and, therefore, you don’t think about your accomplishments or what, you know, people say. You just really concentrate on what you have to do … and there’s a lot to do.
Excerpts of the interview were reprinted with permission from Die Achse Des Guten.