John Kornblum: Cold war diplomat with warmest of hearts

Man on a mission who helped Reagan urge Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’

John Kornblum, American diplomat extraordinaire, made life tough for US ambassadors to Germany. His action-packed ambassadorship in 1997-2001 was the cumulation of more than 40 years in the US state department, where he was a key player in the high and low points of the cold war and its aftermath.

After his tenure, coinciding with the embassy’s relocation from Bonn to reunified Berlin, he stayed on in the restored German capital. All subsequent American envoys lived in his shadow. In cafés and watering holes on the River Spree, elegant German ladies of all ages would frequently address him as ‘Herr Botschafter’, long after his successors had moved into their jobs. With his death in Tennessee at the age of 80 on 21 December, the transatlantic community has lost one of its most devoted, forthright and influential advocates. Kornblum was a sometimes undiplomatic cold war diplomat with the warmest of hearts.

Benefitting from fluency in German and his Cornish and East Prussian ancestry, Kornblum blended American outspokenness with Germanic contemplation and a deep knowledge of European history. His conversations combined novelistic tales of ambassadorial tussles and espionage escapades with psychological insights into Russian-German relations or analysis on Britain’s eventual benefit from European Union departure.

Kornblum was deeply acquainted not just with the personalities but also with the plumbing of half a century of East-West relations. In debates with friends and adversaries alike, characteristically cussed Kornblum took no prisoners. He was even involved in several exchanges of them in celebrated cold war spy swaps on the Glienicke bridge separating Berlin and Potsdam.

Stalwart on OMFIF advisory council

As one of the stalwart members of the OMFIF advisory council, Kornblum was a frequent attendee at OMFIF meetings in Germany and the UK from its beginnings in 2010, heartening gatherings at the Bundesbank and other venues with asides on the waywardness of international governance or the strategic imperatives intertwined with monetary policy.

Meghnad Desai, chairman of the advisory council, says: ‘He was someone whom you knew you had to listen to because he knew what no one else did. We will miss him very much’. According to John Orchard, OMFIF chief executive, ‘John’s passion for and friendly criticism of the transatlantic partnership enlivened many OMFIF advisory council meetings. Recent events vindicate some of his warnings’. Mark Sobel, a policy veteran from the US Treasury, now OMFIF US chair, calls him, ‘A towering figure in US diplomatic history. Feisty, opinionated, smart and reasoned, and quite generous and kind.’

After he left the foreign service in 2001, Kornblum reinforced further his vast network of German friends and admirers, studded with a few enemies. He worked with an array of industrial, legal and financial firms in Germany – including for eight years as chairman of Lazard’s German offshoot. With a frequent drumbeat of pronouncements on how Germany should buttress economic might with ‘hard power’ through stronger defence efforts, Kornblum’s media presence was unrelenting. In an interview with the daily newspaper Die Welt to mark his 80th birthday in February, he urged Germany and Europe to strengthen engagement with Nato. He highlighted failures after the Yugoslav civil wars to show that ‘the EU was neither ready nor willing to mount sufficient mutual defence’ – an outcome which cumulated in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

He subjected the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to especially withering criticism for having traduced German and European interests by building excessive dependence on Russian gas imports. Yet, he afforded more sympathy to Angela Merkel, Christian Democrat chancellor for 16 years up to 2021, mainly in coalition with the SPD – though he believed she had not done enough to enhance Germany’s potential in digitalisation and logistics networks.

His staunch belief in Ukraine’s right to self-defence and his disapproval of the legendary ‘Putin-Versteher’ (authoritative German figures harbouring a sympathy for the Russian president), were stiffened over 36 years of marriage to Helen Sen, the daughter of Ukrainian refugees, who survives him along with their two sons, Alexander and Stephen.

Kornblum was among the many Americans who believed Gerhard Schröder, Merkel’s predecessor as German chancellor from 1998-2005, had acted improperly and unethically in his dealings with Vladimir Putin after Schröder left office. Now that Schröder’s continued support for Putin has made him persona non grata in his own party – as well as throughout most of Germany – Kornblum’s earlier strictures form part of mainstream opinion.

Delicate missions on Germany, US and the euro

Kornblum was no stranger to delicate missions. He had a hand in the 1971 four power agreement, the 1975 Helsinki final act, the 1995 Dayton Agreement on the Bosnian war and Nato’s landmark 1997 expansion. In 1987, as US minister and deputy commandant of forces in occupied Berlin, he helped conceive and organise President Ronald Reagan’s visit to West Berlin, providing Reagan’s famous phrase: ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ The stage management of the visit took place against forthright West Germany opposition, since Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s key aides believed Reagan’s anti-Soviet rhetoric might be dangerously inflammatory.

In the run-up to the introduction of the euro in 1999, American politicians and officials, led by Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, were convinced that the new European currency would fail. Kornblum was dispatched on a clandestine mission to Europe to discuss this sensitive issue with leading European officials. He later recalled his meetings in France, Germany and the Netherlands: ‘I asked for an explanation of their goals and asked also how US reactions would be received. Without exception, all these people warned against expressing doubts or criticism. Such an approach would be a disaster not only for transatlantic relations, but also for joint management of the global financial system.’ He reported back to Washington. As a result, leaders like Larry Summers, US Treasury secretary, toned down their euro scepticism.

Positive nature of transatlantic ‘commonwealth’

Kornblum believed in the positive nature of what he called the ‘commonwealth’ of Europe and the US. But his belief could sometimes fray. Since the historical trauma of the second world war seriously impeded Germany’s ability to display strategic thinking, he considered that the other Nato powers, principally the UK and the US, had to work hard to make up the balance.

In an article for OMFIF on Germany’s shortcomings in strategic leadership on 20 September 2021, just before the last German election, Kornblum wrote:  ‘After 16 years of inward-looking Merkelism, many are hoping that Germany will soon show as much understanding for the needs of its European and Atlantic partners as it has for Russia or China.’ He underlined a blend of emotions: ‘Hope that Germany’s famous stability will continue and, paradoxically, worry that fixation with stability could paralyse the next government. So far none of Merkel’s potential successors – especially the current front runner, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate – seems able or even willing to provide some answers.’

Germany’s performance in the face of Russia’s aggression has drawn praise mixed with criticism of now-Chancellor Scholz’s initial sluggish response. An overriding issue in Kornblum’s working life has been how Germany aligns its own interests with those of the US, the rest of Europe and Russia. Among the dominant themes for the next decade, that nagging question is unlikely to fade from view.

David Marsh is Chairman of OMFIF.

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