An Interview with Mr. Fred Kempe of the Atlantic Council
This interview was conducted by Siobhan Heekin-Canedy, Web Staff Editor of The Fletcher Forum.
FF: As a journalist with the Wall Street Journal you covered some of the most historic events of the twentieth century, including the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Have these experiences shaped the way that you’ve approached your role at the Atlantic Council, and if so how?
FK: They absolutely have influenced my work at the Atlantic Council, and also my choice to come here in the first instance. I was at the Wall Street Journal for more than twenty-five years and, as you say, I had the good fortune to do what the Washington Post publisher Philip Graham famously called, “Writing the first draft of history.” When you’re there on the ground floor you really see the way things unfold, and you see the way that at history’s inflection points, determined individuals and countries have outsized influence.
The period that really shaped my life was the Cold War, and particularly its end, starting with the labor strikes in Poland that I covered in 1980 through to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I came to believe in the power of American influence and power, when properly applied alongside allies. And that, of course, is what the Atlantic Council is entirely about.
Over time as an objective journalist I lost some of that objectivity, and I came to believe deeply in the potential of America to do good in the world and to shape the world positively. Conversely, I also came to appreciate the potential for America to have a bad influence when we’re disengaged and make the wrong decisions. I wanted to be more active in working on the policies that promoted constructive U.S. engagement in the world alongside allies. So that’s why I’m here at the Atlantic Council.
FF: I know that Germany is a country you remain very focused on and involved with. Could you comment on Angela Merkel’s recent announcement that she will be stepping down? What do you think the future holds for Germany post-Merkel?
FK: I see Germany being central to the European future, just as it was leading up to both world wars. Germany is just as important now in determining whether Europe stays close to the United States, whether Europe integrates itself, or whether Europe begins to fall apart. Germany’s history is almost a morality story: the country goes through World War Two, experiences war crimes, the Holocaust, the Third Reich, and is then divided. But then it is reborn as a democratic country—with the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany (East Germany was of course in the Communist camp)—and then through reunification it has an historic opportunity given to it, almost as a gift, to do well for its people and to do good in the world in terms of driving freedom, democracy, open markets, and by binding Europe.
I think that Angela Merkel stepping down as party leader will almost certainly result in her stepping down as Chancellor soon. She says this will occur in 2021, but it could well happen earlier. The real question is whether Germany is losing its pro-European, pro-transatlantic political center. I think the task for whomever replaces her is going to be to fill the void that is currently being occupied by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Left (Die Linke). These two parties are eroding the reasonable and pragmatic political center that is so essential to Germany’s future.
FF: Under your leadership, the Atlantic Council has expanded significantly and has burnished its reputation as one of the top think tanks in the world. Can you tell us about your vision for the organization?
FK: Our mission statement is very simple to say and very hard to do: “Working together to secure the future.” That means that America cannot go it alone. It means that America can only succeed in the world when working constructively with allies. In fact, this really is our greatest asset when you compare us to Russia or China. The purpose of the Atlantic Council since its birth in 1961—its roots really go back to the birth of NATO in 1949—has always been to galvanize friends and allies to secure the future. In 1945 we had roughly 50 percent of global GDP. Now we have less than 25 percent, and falling. As such, we are relatively less capable of doing things on our own. So we have to be even better at working multilaterally with allies, at a time when we’re actually getting worse at it.
So the mission of the Atlantic Council is, first and foremost, to drive this cooperative agenda. We do it across twelve programs and centers that cover all of the regions of the world as well as many of the functional policy areas, ranging from energy to security to cyber to next-generation programming. Deepening the transatlantic community is at the core of what we do. But we are also strongly focused on other global issues, whether it’s the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, or Africa. And, finally, we’re trying to create communities of influence around the things we care about.
We’re not just writing papers that gather dust on shelves. We’re a very action-oriented, dynamic, and entrepreneurial organization. I think that is what has given us our growth and has set us apart. We hold ourselves to account. We try to move the needle on issues. We’re not satisfied with just saying smart things or with bringing smart people together. We are results-oriented.
FF: Could you go into more detail on the Council’s work, as well as your own thoughts, on disinformation? This is clearly a big area of focus for you.
FK: This is a problem that is only going to get more complicated. It is not only the weaponization of disinformation; it is also the weaponization of information. You can take real information and augment it, hype it, and create divisions in American society around it. That can sometimes be as damaging as disinformation.
We have set up the Digital Forensic Research Lab, which monitors information-related threats to democracy around the world on a 24/7 basis. We have become cutting-edge in this space. We have good partnerships with the British government, with Facebook (which is now really trying to burnish its reputation as an organization that cares about protecting democracy), and many others. We’re very proud of this activity because we are not only doing this work ourselves—pushing back real-time as disinformation spreads and utilizing troops on the ground during elections around the world—but beyond that, we are also training a new generation of what we call “digital Sherlocks”.
We, as a relatively small organization, cannot defend truth around the world on our own, which is so important for healthy democracy. So we are training these people in the necessary skills to combat disinformation, by spotting bots, trolls, and nefarious actors. We are teaching them how to reveal what these actors are doing in order to undermine the power of that disinformation. This is just one illustration of how we are a “do tank” and not just a think tank.
FF: Could you speak a little bit about the Atlantic Council’s relationship with the Fletcher School? What advice would you have for any Fletcher students interested in pursuing careers in the areas we have discussed?
FK: This is an exciting relationship for us, and we believe we can strengthen it further. I think both Fletcher and the Council can be innovative and entrepreneurial in thinking about what we could do more of. I would invite Fletcher students to bubble up ideas to the Atlantic Council about how we could be helpful in Washington. There is no doubt that having a partner like the Council in Washington gives Fletcher a place where they can embed themselves and have access. Fletcher is one of the greatest schools in the world at what it does. We’re very strong in Washington at what we do. What Fletcher does has direct importance for the policymaking apparatus in Washington, and in the sausage-making process of U.S. foreign policy.
So we hope that through our relationship, we’ll be able to give more and more of the best students at Fletcher access to Washington. I would also encourage Fletcher students to apply for our many internships across our programs and centers. We like to have graduate students from top schools like Fletcher applying, and it has been a good route for people to work their way into permanent employment by enabling us to get to know the top rising experts.
Courtesy of European People’s Party / Flickr
Fred Kempe is the president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. Under his leadership since 2007, the Council has achieved historic, industry-leading growth in size and influence, expanding its work through regional centers spanning the globe and through centers focused on topics ranging from international security and energy to global trade and next generation leadership.
Before joining the Council, Kempe was a prize-winning editor and reporter at the Wall Street Journal for more than twenty-five years. In New York, he served as assistant managing editor, International, and columnist. Prior to that, he was the longest-serving editor and associate publisher ever of the Wall Street Journal Europe, running the global Wall Street Journal's editorial operations in Europe and the Middle East.
He is the author of four books. The most recent, Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, was a New York Times Best Seller and a National Best Seller.
Kempe is a graduate of the University of Utah and has a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where he was a member of the International Fellows program in the School of International Affairs.