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Joe Biden is sending an academic to Germany. Here’s why it might pay off.

American ambassadors from the academic world have had unique success in Germany.

FILE - In this May 18, 2009, file photo,, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann smiles during commencement in Philadelphia. President Joe Biden on Friday, July 2, 2021, announced he's nominating Gutmann to serve as U.S. ambassador to Germany. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

On July 2, 2021, President Biden nominated Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, as the latest U.S. ambassador to Germany. Upon Senate confirmation, the 71-year-old political scientist will head one of the most important diplomatic missions in Europe.

She would be the first female U.S. ambassador to Germany — a country to which Gutmann has a close connection. Her father Kurt escaped from the Third Reich in 1934.

But her appointment also revives a dormant, but long-standing, U.S. tradition of sending scholars and university presidents as ambassadors to Berlin.

These ambassadors have included luminaries like the literary scholar George Ticknor and the historian George Bancroft. And during the first four decades of the 20th century, the U.S., more often than not, sent a professor to Berlin. Between 1893 and 1957, six of 13 American ambassadors to Germany were academics, four of whom were also university presidents.

This practice was peculiar to Germany, too. Whereas politicians, publishers and industrialists were sent to Paris and London, professors went to Berlin. Doing so symbolized the two countries’ intimate educational and scientific ties, as well as the cultural openings afforded to academics in Germany. Resurrecting this practice today may be ideal for rebuilding an alliance that has frayed over recent decades.

During the 19th century, about 10,000 American students enrolled in Germany’s research universities in search of rigorous scientific training not yet available at home. They often returned with excellent German language skills, an admiration for German culture, a network of elite contacts and, not least, the prestige to pursue a successful academic career in the United States.

When looking for educated and well-connected men willing and able to go to Berlin, then, U.S. presidents turned almost invariably to American universities.

University presidents were well suited to the task. They had deep political ties, extensive leadership experience and could afford the great expenses associated with an ambassadorship. Many of them saw their posting to Germany as the crowning act of their careers and as a chance to serve both their nation and their university in the center of the academic world.

These university presidents-turned-ambassadors often proved highly successful. Time and again, they used their academic credentials to cultivate ties with Germany’s educated elite via diplomatic and academic channels. As economic and geopolitical rivalry aggravated German-American differences after 1900, Cornell President Andrew D. White (1897-1902) and Rochester President David J. Hill (1908-1911) championed the first academic exchanges of their time, firm in their conviction that bringing the two nations’ intellectual leaders together could help defuse tensions and avoid misunderstandings.

In the short run, imperial Germany’s behavior was too antagonistic and ultimately too oblivious to U.S. desires — with American interests too firmly bound with the Allies — to avoid U.S. entry in World War I. But in the long run, these U.S. ambassadors laid the foundation for today’s sprawling academic exchanges, widely acknowledged as a bedrock of German-American understanding.

After World War I, Cornell President Jacob G. Schurman (1925-1929) picked up where White and Hill had left off. Amid significant distrust and disdain on both sides of the Atlantic, the philosophy professor understood his mission as one of cultural reconciliation. He drew on his academic standing and his intimate knowledge of Germany to reactivate elite networks and assure a resentful and humiliated Germany of continued American appreciation.

Schurman strategically flaunted his high regard for German culture at every occasion. He raised a large American endowment for the University of Heidelberg, which awarded him an honorary degree in 1928 in a sensational ceremony. When Schurman left Berlin in late 1929, he was widely credited with having restored a sense of trust and friendship between Germany and the U.S. — albeit one that evaporated once Hitler gained power in 1933.

After World War II, James B. Conant, Harvard’s long-standing president, followed in Schurman’s footsteps, first as U.N. high commissioner and then as the first American ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany (1955-1957). Conant’s tenure in Bonn saw West Germany regain its sovereignty, agree to its rearmament and join NATO. Conant helped negotiate and sell these developments in Germany and back home. He, too, emphasized his identity as a university man to counter the initial anti-Americanism expressed by Germany’s educated classes, and he repeatedly used the venerable stage offered by German universities to promote an emerging Atlantic community.

These ambassadors cultivated a precious commodity in international relations: trust. They represented a cultured Amerika to Germany and effectively communicated a sense of transatlantic goodwill to German and American audiences. Following his return from Bonn, Conant, for example, spent considerable time convincing the American public that German militarism was “dead and buried” and that West Germany truly was a stable, and reliably democratic, ally. Their academic training and identity arguably enabled U.S. educator-diplomats to reach the right audiences at critical moments of the German-American relationship.

But their success also owed to the great regard that German society held for professors. In Berlin and Bonn, U.S. professor-ambassadors enjoyed the high social prestige accorded to faculty in Germany and ready access to scientific societies, intellectual clubs and universities, otherwise closed to foreign diplomats. Germans chose to ignore the highly political and entrepreneurial nature of the work of U.S. university presidents. Instead, they treated them as part of a Republic of Letters, as stewards of a universal pursuit of knowledge, or what the Germans call Wissenschaft.

Academics could (and can) expect a warm welcome among Germany’s educated opinion-shapers, avoiding the skepticism that would have confronted an American hailing from the business sector. As the German magazine Der Spiegel acknowledged upon Conant’s appointment in the mid-1950s, “In no other country in the world is research so respected […] A scientist of the rank of a Conant has the greatest chance to do good work.”

This preference for sending a professor to Berlin will play in Gutmann’s favor.

Much has changed since educator-diplomats reigned supreme in the early 20th century. Most U.S. ambassadors today come from the business world or are career diplomats, even to Germany.

But the need for effective communication and a convincing articulation of joint interests and values has perhaps never been greater. The relationship between the U.S. and Germany has been rocky since at least 2003, when it fractured over the Iraq War. Transatlantic relations reached a new low point under President Donald Trump, exacerbated by the undiplomatic behavior of Trump’s ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell.

According to a 2018 Pew Survey, 66 percent of Germans now view the U.S. unfavorably, a higher percentage than in any other European nation. In late 2020, a whopping 79 percent of Germans considered relations with the United States to be “bad.”

In this environment, Gutmann’s standing as an esteemed political philosopher and university president uniquely positions her to help achieve Biden’s goal of rebuilding alliances. German media have responded to her appointment in predictably positive ways. Ignoring that Gutmann has, in essence, run a large company for almost two decades (Penn is Pennsylvania’s second largest private employer) they have instead embraced her identity as an Ivy League scholar. “The Boor [Grenell] is Succeeded by a University President” gushed one respectable German paper. This impression will empower Gutmann as she seeks to recapture the hearts and minds of German elites. After years of estrangement, it might be the perfect time for another university president.