A Return to Berlin (Part 4)

brandenburg gate

Saturday, May 18, 2013

It is amazing how quickly this week has passed! It has been an incredible combination of sight-seeing and high-level briefings. We’ve all learned a great deal – and have heard some different perspectives on some of the challenges Germany and Europe face.

The pace of the first part of the week continued. On Thursday, we spent the day in Potsdam visiting historic Cecilienhof, Sansouci (the site of the Potsdam Conference negotiations after World War II), and the Haus am Wannsee (where mid-level Nazi leaders plotted the “Final Solution”).

On Friday morning, the group enjoyed briefings with foreign service officers from the Economic and Political Sections at the U.S. Embassy. And in the evening, we had a closing dinner with former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, John Kornblum.


The take-away:

What’s the take-away after a week in Berlin measuring the pulse of contemporary Germany? Here are three brief observations:

  1. Berlin is looking forward to hosting President Barack Obama in mid-June – just a week before the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Berlin and his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. This will be Obama’s first official trip to Berlin since he took office in 2009. He has been to Germany twice during his first year as president and was in Berlin as a presidential candidate in 2008.
  2. In the run up to the September 22 German parliamentary election, German politics are worth watching. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking reelection and a third four-year term. There seems to be little doubt that she will continue in her role as Chancellor. However, questions abound concerning the make-up of the governing coalition.Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Party will need a coalition partner to govern. Their current coalition partner – the Free Democrats – have fallen from nearly 15 percent in the last election to roughly five percent in opinion polls. Smaller parties such as the Pirate Party (which espouses greater internet freedom) and the new euro-sceptic Alternative for Berlin (which advocates a return to the Deutsch Mark) may siphon off some votes from the current coalition government. Taken together, the contraction of the Free Democrats and the rise of new parties may make it difficult for the current government to remain in office.

    A return to a Grand Coalition – of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats – seems most likely. Some analysts and observers believe this is not ideal because Germany will stagnate. Others feel that this is the best-case scenario for Germany at this time.

    One additional factor is how the Green Party will fare. They have been rising in the polls – and could serve as “king maker” to the conservative Christian Democrats or the more liberal Social Democrats.

  3. My sense is that the group left Germany with more questions about the future of Europe than they had when they arrived. One speaker talked about the challenge of “managing the relative decline of Europe” vis-à-vis rising powers, but almost all of the speakers talked about the strong role Germany plays within Europe and on the world stage. There are many questions about the future of Europe – and specifically the role France will play. Many of the speakers talked about a “sputtering” Franco-German engine although these two countries have been at the core of Europe’s postwar development.

All in all, lots of food for thought as we digest a week of new experiences and opinions…

by Dr. Steven E. Sokol, President and CEO, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh

potsdam group


A Return to Berlin (Part 3)


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

It has been a great week so far! On Sunday, we began the trip with a walking tour of the area immediately surrounding the hotel in historic East Berlin. We ventured over toward the west to the Brandenburg Gate by walking down the impressive boulevard Unter den Linden.

On Monday, the walking continued. We passed through a square with my favorite “monument” on our way to the German Historical Museum for a quick survey of 2000 years of German history. The square is Bebelplatz and this is where on May 10, 1933, a massive book burning by National Socialist students took place. Works from great authors such as Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Heinrich Heine, and Karl Marx were taken from the library of the Humboldt University and burned. Altogether some 20,000 books were burned. The memorial is an underground library with empty shelves which one can view from above through a thick plate of glass.

Over lunch, we met with the head of the German Council on Foreign Relations, Dr. Eberhard Sandschneider, for a discussion of Germany’s place in the world. After lunch we headed to the German Foreign Office for briefings with the Coordinator for German-American Affairs and the Coordinator for Dialogue among Civilizations. In the first session in the Foreign Office, participants learned about the strong ties between Germany and the United States – and specifically the new U.S.-EU free trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). In the second meeting, we discussed Germany’s relations with the Muslim world as well as immigration and integration in Germany.

On Tuesday, we started the day with a briefing at the Atlantik-Brücke – a non-profit founded in the 1950s to promote deeper ties between Germany and the United States. We met with two young “transatlanticists” who personify the next generation of young leaders. We ended the day with a special briefing about German energy policy with the head of ecologic.

from museum island

The group spent most of the day on the famous Museum Island looking at artifacts from around the world – including the Pergamon Alter and the Gates of Babylon.

On Wednesday, the group learned about the Third Reich and the Cold War. We had the opportunity to explore Checkpoint Charlie and the Topography of Terror. In addition, we saw Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum – which traces the history of Jews in Germany and Europe – as well as Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial.

Over lunch, the group met with Europe-expert Ulrike Guerot for a discussion of German and European politics, the euro crisis, and Franco-German relations. In the afternoon, we met with foreign policy expert and politician Hans-Ulrich Klose who also gave us a tour of the Reichstag building.

by Dr. Steven E. Sokol, President and CEO, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh

A Return to Berlin (Part 2)

cranes over berlin

May 11, 2013

The biggest surprise on arrival is the amount of construction in the heart of East Berlin and the heart of West Berlin.

After German reunification, Berlin was often referred to as a “city of cranes” because of all the construction taking place. Over 20 years later, cranes are still a fixture on the skyline.

by Dr. Steven E. Sokol, President and CEO, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh

A Return to Berlin




May 10, 2013

 As I buckled in for the flight from Newark to Berlin, I found myself wondering what the coming week will bring. Berlin is a city I know well – having lived there before, during, and after the Wendi. Even after I left Berlin to move to New York City in 2002, I was back in Berlin at least four to six times a year – and in a good position to regularly measure the pulse of contemporary Germany. But, it has been three years since I was last in Berlin.

The last time I was in Berlin was June 2010. Now, I am going back to Berlin in the run up to the September election to lead a tour for the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.

I’ll be spending a week with 15 Americans from across the country who want to learn more about Germany’s past, present, and future. In addition to seeing the sights and visiting museums,  we’ll have meetings with parliamentarians and opinion leaders as well as policy briefings at the Federal Foreign Office and the U.S. Embassy.

As I prepare for the week-long trip, I wonder what will have changed since I was last in Berlin…

From a political standpoint, it will certainly be an interesting time to be in Berlin:

President Obama will make his first official state visit to Berlin in June – just one week before the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. Obama was in Berlin before he was elected, and he has been to Germany since becoming president, but he has yet to visit the nation’s capital in his current capacity.

German federal elections are four months away. A lot can happen between now and September, but our group will have a chance to delve into the emerging trends. And, this election could be very interesting. Although Angela Merkel still enjoys strong support, there is some criticism of her handling of the euro crisis. The Christian Democrats’ coalition partner – the Free Democrats – have slumped from nearly 15 percent of the vote in the last election to five percent in recent surveys. (Five percent is the minimum threshold for representation in Parliament.) Meanwhile, the Green Party has increased to 15 percent in opinion polls. And, a eurosceptic new party – Alternative for Germany – has emerged as a wild card that may weaken Merkel’s chances of reelection by siphoning off votes from the center-right. This could leave an opening for the return of a left-leaning government of Social Democrats and Greens.

The debate over the future of the euro – and the future of Europe – rages on in Germany and across Europe. And, U.S.-European free trade is a hot topic with negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) going at full steam.

Our delegation will certainly have lots to talk about…


by Dr. Steven E. Sokol, President and CEO, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh

Gaziantep: Pittsburgh’s Newest Sister City

“Gypsy Girl” – An iconic image of Gaziantep.

Gaziantep is a city of some 1.4 million people in southeastern Anatolia – only about an hour’s drive from the border with Syria. The immediate vicinity has been continuously inhabited since the Paleolithic Age and experienced the domination of powers such as the Assyrians, Persians, Romans, and Byzantines.

Located on the Silk Road, it is no surprise, that Gaziantep has a rich history in commerce. Today, it is an important – and growing – economic center of Turkey. The main sectors include cement and construction, textiles, leather, soap, food, carpets. The delegation heard from government and business leaders that Gaziantep is very entrepreneurial and is always looking for new business opportunities. Gaziantep is among the top ten fastest growing cities in the world – even though it does not have many natural resources. It is behind cities like Dubai, Qatar, and one in China, and one in Nigeria.

More than 600 companies in Gaziantep export to 158 countries – and in 2011 Gaziantep exported $5 billion to 171 countries. 38 percent of exports were to Iraq, 26 percent to European Union member states, and 11 percent to countries in the Middle East. In 1992, Gaziantep had a population of roughly 350,000 to 400,000 – but as a result of its rapid development, many people have been migrating from other parts of the country to seek opportunities in Gaziantep. This has put pressure on the social infrastructure and social fabric of the city.

Dr. Asim Güzelbey has been Mayor of Gaziantep for eight years, and has taken on many of these challenges. The city has made major investments in infrastructure through European Union development programs, funding from local sources, and the sale of land.  He believes that the best investment a community can make is in human capital.

 Today, Gaziantep has no unemployment and is in need of qualified labor.

In addition to being an emerging economic powerhouse, Gaziantep cuisine is recognized across the country and has influenced Turkish cuisine as a whole.  This region is famous for its pistachios but also for its kebabs and kofte (meatballs with bulgur), and baklava.

Signing the Sister City agreement between Gazientep and Pittsburgh.

On Tuesday, August 28, the Cities of Pittsburgh and Gaziantep signed a sister city proclamation. There was a great deal of enthusiasm on both sides about the potential to deepen the relationship in meaningful ways.

by World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh President & CEO, Dr. Steven E. Sokol

Editor’s Note: This is the second of several blog posts about the Pittsburgh delegation’s trip to Turkey. Stay tuned for more!

Arriving in Istanbul

Arriving at Istanbul Airport is an assault on the senses. Throngs of people push and pull in different directions loaded down with bags and shouting at each other. Istanbul is where the Occident and the Orient meet. It is also the end of the great Silk Road. For centuries, people have been coming to Istanbul to trade.

It was here – at the Istanbul Airport – that I connected with a delegation from Pittsburgh to undertake an important fact-finding mission to Turkey. Headed by Congressman Mike Doyle and Councilman Bill Peduto, eight Pittsburghers set out to spend a week together developing a deeper, more nuanced understanding of modern Turkey – and its rich history. The catalyst for the trip was an invitation from the City of Gaziantep to become sister cities. Gaziantep is Pittsburgh’s 17th sister city – and the first sister city in a majority Muslim country.

On the drive from the airport to the historic center of Istanbul, the group had a chance to see a mass of cargo ships waiting to enter the Bosphorus as well as their first glimpse of the city’s skyline. Istanbul can be described as one of the most visually stimulating cities in the world. And, the first impressions were just scratching at the surface.

Geography – and history – have shaped Istanbul. This is where Europe and Asia meet. Istanbul is the only city to span two continents. It has a very strong and diverse historical, cultural, and religious heritage, which is still palpable today as one walks through the streets and alleyways.

The population of Turkey is over 74 million – and half of the country’s population is under the age of 29. Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey. It home to some 20 percent of population. By official counts, 14 million people live in Istanbul, but it is estimated that there are another four to six million people who are registered elsewhere but actually live in Istanbul. By comparison, five million people live in Ankara – which was declared the nation’s capital in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Until then, Istanbul had served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire for 470 years. Today, Ankara is the center of government, bureaucracy, and diplomacy, while Istanbul continues to thrive as a vibrant commercial center.

Shielded from the global economic slowdown, the Turkish economy is still moving strong. Turkey enjoyed a 9 percent growth rate in 2011. It is expected to be a little slower this year, but still good. 65 percent of industrial exports from MENA countries are produced in Turkey

In addition to Congressman Doyle and Councilman Peduto, Pittsburgh was represented by Simin Curtis, Founder and President of the American Middle East Institute; Reverend Glenn Grayson, Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network; Aradhna Oliphant, President and CEO of Leadership Pittsburgh, Inc.; James Nathan Williams III, Director of Government Affairs for the University of Pittsburgh; and me, in my capacity as President and CEO of the World Affairs Council.

We were joined by Jean Roehrenbeck, Legislative Assistant to Congressman Doyle. Our Pittsburgh-based Turkish hosts – Serdar Ayman and Hasan Eygoren, who both represented the Turkish Cultural Foundation – accompanied us as well.

Over the course of a week, this group had the opportunity to meet with opinion leaders and decision makers from business, politics, and academia to learn more about modern Turkey. This was rounded out by tours of historic sites to understand the region’s place in history and the role of religion. In addition, we met with local business leaders and their families.  The delegation visited Istanbul, Ankara, Gaziantep, and Izmir.

by World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh President & CEO, Dr. Steven E. Sokol

Editor’s Note: This is the first of several blog posts about the Pittsburgh delegation’s trip to Turkey. Stay tuned for more!


20 Global Travel Scholars for 2012

This summer, the lives of twenty local students will be forever transformed. In late June, they will travel all over the world to experience firsthand the daily lives of Koreans, Italians, South Africans, Peruvians, and fourteen other cultures. These high school juniors – selected as Global Travel Scholars by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh – will leave behind friends, family, and the familiar comforts of Western Pennsylvania to immerse themselves in the joys and challenges of living in a foreign country.

This marks the ninth year that the Council, in partnership with The Experiment in International Living, has provided this unique opportunity to local students. Through the generous financial support of regional foundations, corporations, and individuals, the Council is sending its largest group of Scholars, representing sixteen different high schools, to seventeen different countries.

This group of Scholars is also among the most diverse in program history. Charles Hickerson, one of seven African American males who will be traveling abroad this summer, is excited to experience life in another country. “This program opens a door for students like me who have only been able to ‘travel’ through books, magazines, and the internet,” says Hickerson, a junior at Propel Andrew Street High School, who will explore Italy for five weeks. “Chances like this do not come often and I do not take this for granted.”

Jacalyn Sharp, a junior at Pittsburgh Sci Tech 6-12, will spend four weeks in Scotland fulfilling her lifelong dream of traveling there and putting her Gaelic language skills to the test. “It is amazing that my dream is actually going to come true,” enthuses Sharp. “This is an opportunity unlike any other. For a lack of better words, it’s like floating on a cloud,” she says.

While abroad, students learn and grow -- and have fun!

Providing international travel experiences for students who would not otherwise have the opportunity is the guiding principle behind the Council’s Global Travel Scholarship Program. “Today’s students will enter a globally diverse workforce in which it will be essential to communicate cross-culturally,” notes Dr. Steven E. Sokol, President and CEO of the Council.  “Providing young people with an opportunity to develop intercultural skills at such a critical age is a key benefit of our Program,” says Sokol. “Our Scholars return to Pittsburgh as true ‘global citizens,’ with a much greater capacity to understand and think critically about their world.”

Some of the Scholars have already grasped the significance of their upcoming adventures. “Becoming a Global Travel Scholar will be a life-altering experience,” explains Kara Jones, a junior at South Side Area High School who will be participating in a travel intensive program in China for four weeks. “This trip will expand my comfort zone and help me establish relationships with my host family and other people I will meet.”

In addition to the lifelong connections the Scholars will make this summer, they will also learn quite a bit about themselves. David A. Murdoch, former Chair of the Council’s Board of Directors and Chair Emeritus of World Learning (the parent organization of The Experiment in International Living), was a driving force behind the implementation of the Global Travel Scholarship Program in Pittsburgh. “The Experiment provides a true understanding of the world in which we live, and provides the necessary tools to cope with adversity,” notes Mr. Murdoch. “Experimenters come back with a confidence and maturity that only an opportunity like this could provide.”

Sadik Roberts, a junior at Pittsburgh Obama who will experience the vibrancy of West African culture for five weeks in Ghana, is eager to step out of his comfort zone and grow as a person.  “This is a chance to fly across the world, visit a distant land, learn about ancient cultures, and find the truth within myself.”

Timothy Joy, a junior at Ambridge Area High School, can barely contain his excitement about all the new experiences that await him in Thailand. “This journey will be an adventure but I see it as more than a vacation,” he says. “I see it as an outstanding learning and growing experience,” notes Joy. “Along this journey, I hope to find myself, experience things I never have, and most importantly, immerse myself in a new culture.”

Perhaps no aspect of their time abroad will challenge the Scholars more – and have a greater impact on their  personal and intercultural growth – than the time they will spend living with local host families, many of whom speak little or no English.  “The homestay portion of the program is of greatest concern to the Scholars each year,” explains Murdoch. “They are worried about the language barrier and about adjusting to the family’s daily routine. Yet, when they return, the Scholars single out the homestay as the highlight of the entire summer,” he says with a smile.

Scholars bond with host families while abroad.

Reflecting on her upcoming trip to France, Heaven Brown, a junior at Cornell High School, displays wisdom beyond her years when she says, “This experience changes people’s lives in the blink of an eye. I can’t control the gut-dwelling feeling that builds up inside me knowing it will be mine.”

Upon return, each Scholar will be responsible for writing a reflective essay; sharing their experiences with friends, family, teachers, staff, and funders at the Welcome Home Session; conducting at least two school or community presentations; and designing a globally-themed project to engage their peers in international affairs issues.

More details about the program, including names, schools and destinations of the 2012 Scholars; a list of program supporters; and information about the organizations can be found after the jump. 

Read the rest of this entry »