Penn professors largely regard Penn President Amy Gutmann's recent ambassadorial appointment as a positive step in reviving the United States' foreign relations with Germany, and an opportunity to create lasting change at home and abroad.
Ambassadorships typically go to career diplomats who have experience in the region or mega-donors of the sitting president, according to Politico, but Penn professors agreed this does not mean that Gutmann lacks the needed experience for the position.
Gutmann, who was appointed as the next United States ambassador to Germany by President Joe Biden on July 2, will conclude her role as president on June 30, 2022 after 18 years at the University. But there is a chance she may leave Penn several months earlier than planned if there is a Senate confirmation of her appointment, she wrote in an email to the Penn community the day of her appointment. University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy did not respond to requests for comment about how the University plans to handle this potential transition period.
Political Science professor Alex Weisiger said the job of an ambassador is to manage relations with other countries. While lower-level staffers are more often connected to the policy decisions, he said ambassadors are essential to making strong foreign allies and serving as “the public face” of America.
Political Science Department Chair Michael Jones-Correa agreed with Weisiger, adding that ambassadors are responsible for coordinating the embassy's mission and staff. This ranges from managing staffers who are engaged in trade agreements to monitoring the overall political situation of the country, he said.
University presidents, like Gutmann, have similar skills that can overlap with the role of an ambassador, Weisiger said. He said ambassadors should have the ability to talk through disagreements while representing their country's interest and not alienating the other side, and also to serve as a "public face that people are going to think of positively."
Gutmann specifically has a "deep and sophisticated knowledge of international and domestic politics," Political Science professor Nicholas Sambanis wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian, adding that she is politically extremely savvy, an effective leader and manager, and a great communicator who believes deeply in American values and in the foreign policy goals of this country.
Weisiger believes Biden nominated Gutmann for this position because he said Germany has a history of respecting academics. While it has not been as common recently, he said that the U.S. has had a history of sending more academic ambassadors to Germany in earlier years.
Six of the 13 ambassadors to Germany were academics between 1893 and 1957, four of which had served as university presidents, according to The Washington Post. Two of those four were from the Ivy League. Cornell University President Jacob Schurman served from 1925 to 1930, and Harvard University President James Conant was the nation's first ambassador to West Germany from 1955 to 1957.
“In my own discipline, intellectual directions were very much affected by German refugees coming to the United States and bringing German foreign thoughts with them,” Weisiger said about the political science field.
Jones-Correa said that Gutmann should not face much objection towards her nomination once her appointment is brought to the Senate floor.
“The more pressing issue right now is getting it on the docket at all so that it can move forward. A lot of these ambassadorships are stalled, because we have one senator, in particular, who's placed a hold on these nominations,” he said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has led the charge in blocking Biden’s State Department nominees, objecting over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Germany and Russia. His procedural actions in special committees and on the full Senate floor have stalled the confirmation process for 60 ambassadors and state officials. Although he is not certain, Jones-Correa said Gutmann could be in this group blocked by Cruz.
The Senate confirmed Biden’s first nominee and former Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) as the Mexican ambassador on August 11. In comparison, Biden’s predecessors George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump each had 53, 59, and 19 confirmed appointees, respectively, by their 200th day in office.
“On ambassadorial appointments, they're way behind,” Jones-Correa said.
Jones-Correa anticipates that Gutmann will have to address a variety of issues as ambassador, including "everything from refugees and asylum issues to the Iran deal" in order to form a more cooperative partnership between Germany and the Unites States.
And now is a critical time to rebuild the relationship between the United States and Germany in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency, Weisiger added. Throughout Trump's presidency, Weisiger said many of Trump's interactions with current German Chancellor Angela Merkel made Germany "skeptical" of the United States. A 2020 Pew Research poll revealed that 79% of Germans viewed their relations with the United States as “bad.”
Still, Penn professors unwaveringly see Gutmann's ambassadorial appointment as a positive stepping stone in improving the nation's foreign relations.
Weisiger and Jones-Correa hope Gutmann will make it a priority for the United States to form a connection with Germany's new government and ensure both nations are on the same page moving forward, as Germany will be going through a transition period after their federal election next month.
“Germany is a very high profile ambassadorship; they are one of our key allies. This is not an ambassadorship that is given out to people who are simply giving out political donations,” Jones-Correa said. “You really want to have someone there who has the ear of the president and can speak essentially in the president’s voice. That is what President Gutmann would bring to that role.”