January 24, 2007: Features
on the table
By Brett Tomlinson
The clock has not yet hit 9:30 in the Wednesday morning Woodrow Wilson School seminar “International Crisis Diplomacy,” but instructors Joschka Fischer and Wolfgang Danspeckgruber and the dozen graduate students seated around a square table on the ground floor of Bendheim Hall already have been debating for more than an hour.
The topic of the day — Kosovo — is a familiar one for Fischer, who was leading policy discussions behind closed doors as Germany’s minister of foreign affairs less than a year before he arrived in September to do the same — not always with doors closed — at Princeton. In 1999, Fischer was largely responsible for Germany’s decision to send troops to Kosovo as part of a NATO-led intervention, a decision that many Germans, including some in Fischer’s own party, vehemently opposed. Danspeckgruber, a lecturer in public and international affairs and the director of the Princeton-based Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, maintains close ties to diplomacy in Kosovo as well, consulting with officials involved in the ongoing Kosovo-status negotiations.
The graduate students show few signs of timidity when addressing their distinguished professors, but they also listen intently, particularly when Fischer speaks. It’s hard not to when he begins a story with, “I had a meeting with Milosevic about two or three weeks before the war started ... .”
Danspeckgruber leans and gestures, directing the group’s conversational traffic, while Fischer, seated to his left, looks relaxed but focused, with his elbows on the table and his shirtsleeves rolled halfway up his forearms. The students raise questions and the instructors respond with their own divergent views of what works and what does not in the world of diplomacy. Despite Fischer and Danspeckgruber’s common interests, points of agreement between the two seem to be the exception, not the rule.
More than an hour into the class, when Danspeckgruber explains one point about the Kosovo-status talks and notices Fischer nodding slowly, he turns and asks, “So you agree?”
“Hundred percent,” Fischer replies.
Danspeckgruber’s closed lips curl into a tight smile and he raises his arms, acknowledging the thrill of victory — or of just finding common ground.
The celebration is in jest, of course, but the sense of achievement was very real last June when the Wilson School announced Fischer was coming to campus for a yearlong appointment as the Frederick H. Schultz Visiting Professor. Wilson School Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 and Danspeckgruber had pursued the charismatic 58-year-old German politician for the better part of a year, and rumors of his new job filled the German press. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright inadvertently leaked the news two months before the official announcement, in the question-and-answer session at a talk she delivered on campus.
Fischer and Danspeckgruber first met when the foreign minister gave a policy speech at Princeton in September 2003, months after Germany declined to join the U.S.-led coalition that invaded Iraq. Though relatively new acquaintances, they interact with the familiarity of old friends in the classroom. But they come from very different backgrounds. Danspeckgruber, a native Austrian, earned degrees at prestigious universities in Linz, Vienna, and Geneva, before building an expertise in the academic understanding of diplomacy. Fischer, whose parents immigrated to Germany from Hungary, has been a practitioner of diplomacy but is somewhat famously not a college man. His formal schooling ended before he finished high school, and he was a leftist radical in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a turbulent period in the former West Germany. During that time, he was a factory worker and a taxi driver. When asked whether he ever envisioned himself as a professor, Fischer laughs and answers, “No — but I never imagined that I would one day be vice chancellor and the foreign minister of my country.”
Fischer rose to political power in the 1980s as a prominent voice in the emerging Green party. In 1985, he became the first Green to assume a government post, becoming the Hessian Minister of the Environment and Energy, but he remained true to his modest roots, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and high-top sneakers when he was sworn in. (The sneakers were later displayed at a museum in Bonn.) Fischer eventually swapped his jeans for suits as the influence of the Greens grew in the decade that followed. He became the Greens’ spokesman in the Bundestag, or parliament, and in 1998 was selected to be the foreign minister under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a position he left in November 2005 when Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition came to power.
In the fall, Fischer co-taught two sections of “International Crisis Diplomacy” — the seminar for graduate students and a slightly larger class for undergraduates — and he will teach a seminar about international relations and Europe
in the spring. Danspeckgruber, who had taught the crisis-diplomacy course before, tailored the fall’s syllabus around conflicts in which Fischer’s work influenced the policy debates, from the Balkans to the Mideast.
The weekly class lasts three hours, typically without a break, and no one seems anxious to leave the table, according to Doug Mercado, a graduate student who has spent more than a decade working in international humanitarian assistance for the United Nations and USAID. “This is not a class where people are looking at their watches, wondering when it’s going to be over,” Mercado says. “Everyone gets so enveloped in the discussions that you lose track of the time.”
For each seminar, one student, or in some cases two, leads the class through a detailed set of talking points that are fine-tuned in lunchtime meetings with the instructors on the Monday before class. In nearly all cases, the international conflicts discussed in the course are unresolved; Fischer says that makes the study of crisis diplomacy both challenging and exciting. Second-year M.P.A. student Christina Hajdu, who worked in the Australian Foreign Service before coming to the Wilson School, says that each case study has its own distinctive historical and cultural context. “The underlying theme that I have seen in the course is that there’s no set formula for crisis diplomacy,” she says. “Flexibility and innovation are required in each situation to solve the problem.”
The students and instructors try to find creative solutions through free-flowing and at times contentious debates that Fischer says resemble the policy discussions he held with his advisers — a believable claim coming from the man who, in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, publicly told Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ’54, “Excuse me, I’m not convinced.” In class, Fischer not only accepts criticism but invites it, which surprised some students, including Lisandro Martin, a second-year M.P.A. candidate from Argentina who has worked for the World Bank. “Maybe because of my experiences with politicians in the past, I was not expecting that he was going to be that open-minded,” Martin says. Fischer summarizes his approach succinctly: “I’m not interested in sycophants. ... Tough questions. Good answers. ... This is the essence of good policy planning and decision-making.”
From Fischer’s perspective, the seminar thrives on contradiction (“Without contradiction there is no creativity,” he says), but Danspeckgruber says that the class has a collegial grounding as well, with plans to collaborate on a paper outlining “principles of crisis diplomacy in the emerging international system” at the end of the semester. In Danspeckgruber’s European educational background, there were two basic types of classes: ex-cathedra courses, in which the professors taught and the students listened; and doktorantenseminare, in which the students were expected to act as colleagues and the professors were, ideally, to be just as stimulated as their pupils. Danspeckgruber modeled the graduate course on the latter. “I’ve heard from several students that this is, by distance, the class for which they have to work the most,” Danspeck-gruber says. “But they also say that they feel they get a lot out of it. That’s an encouragement, and that is really, if I can say, due to [the instructors’] team spirit. They feel it.”
For Fischer, the experience has given him some fresh ideas, which he has carried into conversations with colleagues at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City and other friends in the world of international relations. Coming to the United States as a professor, rather than an official, also has been fulfilling in a personal sense, he says. In an interview with Die Tageszeitung, a German newspaper, following the end of his work as foreign minister, Fischer said that he had traded freedom for power when he entered public life. By leaving his post, he aimed to get his freedom back, and in Princeton, far from the scrutiny of the German press, he says that he feels like “a free man.”
In addition to spending a minimum of six hours in the classroom each Wednesday, Fischer still makes speeches, writes occasional opinion pieces, and boards his share of trans-Atlantic flights. But, he says, “Compared with the office of a foreign minister, it’s relaxing.”
Brett Tomlinson is an associate editor at PAW.