What Bertelsmann Wants from Obama

Whereas President-elect Obama’s disclosure deal with Bill and Hillary Clinton has received close attention from the traditional news media, the president-elect’s own disclosure issues — notably, as concerns his financial relationship with Germany’s Bertelsmann Corporation — continue to be ignored. It is undoubtedly true that the books published by the Bertelsmann subsidiary Random House under Barack Obama’s name have sold extremely well. It is, however, equally undoubtedly true that Bertelsmann/Random House invested considerable marketing resources to assure that they would. The German corporation is thus not merely a passive beneficiary of the phenomenon that has come to be known as “Obamamania”; Bertelsmann/Random House substantially contributed to creating the phenomenon.


In any case, Senate ethics rules expressly require members to reveal the financial details of book deals. In a 2006 column on “Barack Obama and the Book Business,” Peter Osnos notes that Obama avoided having to comply with these rules by signing his Bertelsmann/Random House deal in the brief window between his election to the Senate and his swearing in.

As suggested in my earlier article on Bertelsmann’s “Man in the White House,” the issue of Obama’s financial relationship to Bertelsmann is particularly troubling, since following the November 4 presidential election the Bertelsmann Foundation wasted no time in announcing that it had prepared a series of policy recommendations for the incoming president. Bertelsmann is no ordinary German corporation. Via the foundation and the foundation’s yearly budget of some €70 million, it is a major player in German politics and European politics more generally. The “synergies” between Bertelsmann and various agencies of the German government are numerous and obvious: so much so that Bertelsmann has taken on the trappings of a veritable state within the state. Consider only that Bertelsmann’s “10th International Forum” in 2006 was held at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Participants included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, then French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

Bertelsmann’s “Trans-Atlantic Briefing Book” is available here. Bertelsmann also refers to it as a “European Briefing Book for Barack Obama”. The document sets out a “roadmap” for transatlantic cooperation during Obama’s first six months in office. In typical Bertelsmann style, the authors do not hesitate to speak on behalf of all of Europe and all Europeans. The tone of the document more closely resembles that of a Diktat laid down by a victorious power to a defeated adversary than that of a policy papers published by a customary think-tank. Although providing what are merely styled “recommendations,” the authors’ preferred register is in fact bluntly imperative. Thus the very first sentence reads: “Engaging with Europe is not an option” (i.e., not merely an option). The “Briefing Book,” we are told shortly thereafter, will identify “items that must specifically be addressed” (my emphasis) in the “short window” following the inauguration (p. 5).


The incoming president is given remarkably detailed instructions to be carried out within precise time-frames. For example: “Prior to entering office, the next U.S. president should call for a suspension and review of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)” (p. 57) or “The new U.S. administration … should begin a climate initiative by the end of President Obama’s first six months in office. They need to get started before the summer.” (p. 60). Also on “climate change,” the incoming president is advised to use his inaugural address or the State of the Union address to provide “commitments to an international regime with binding emissions targets” (p. 62). It will be interesting to see if he does.

The Bertelsmann “Briefing Book” devotes separate sections to seven “key issues”: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Economic Challenges, Climate Change, and the Middle East Peace Process. Perhaps more notable than those issues that made the cut is one that did not: terrorism. Indeed, terrorism is almost only ever mentioned in passing in the “Briefing Book” and when it does come up, it typically does so as someone else’s concern: that of the UK or Russia or, of course, of the United States. In the section on Afghanistan, for example, combating terrorism is mentioned as just one possible motivation for the international military presence in the country and one, moreover, that the authors persistently insinuate is regarded as dubious by “real” Europeans (i.e., everyone but the British). “European public opinion was never enthusiastic about joining a US-led anti-terror combat mission,” we are told (p. 16) — as if the very origins of the war in Afghanistan had faded into obscurity or somehow did not matter.

Only in the very last substantive sub-section of the “Briefing Book” do the authors get around to telling us that “Europe has taken on the counter-terrorism agenda” (p. 76). This wooden — and, in light of all the foregoing, unconvincing — assurance appears in a seemingly tacked-on “Special Note on The Long-Term Agenda.” Terrorism is there included in a list of “long-term foreign policy challenges,” which, however, are not deemed to be as “urgent” as the “key issues.”


This is to say that for Bertelsmann the purely hypothetical and obviously long-term “threat” of sustained global temperature increase is more urgent than the threat posed by the Islamic terror networks whose attacks have taken tens of thousands of lives from 9/11 to Mumbai’s 11/26. (Marc Sheppard has noted at American Thinker that at a recent meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, Bill Clinton similarly downplayed the importance of terrorism as compared to global warming. That Bill Clinton would thus echo the Bertelsmann priorities is hardly surprising. After all, as documented in my “Bill Clinton’s German Paymasters”, the former president’s personal wealth is largely a product of his collaboration with Bertelsmann.) Revealingly, the first time the “Briefing Book” mentions “longer-term challenges” (p. 6), terrorism is not even included in the list. “Outreach to the Muslim world,” however, is. With Iran reported to be on the verge of obtaining enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, nuclear proliferation is likewise relegated by the Bertelsmann Foundation to the ranks of the second-tier, “not-so-urgent” issues.

The Bertelsmann “Briefing Book” hardly makes for scintillating reading. Predictably, given the source, the background assumptions on the state of transatlantic relations are derived from the “grand narrative” of American misdeeds under the Bush administration that Bertelsmann’s own media have played a major role in propagating. (On Bertelsmann’s flagship German weekly Stern, for instance, see here.) In lieu of facts and documentation, the “Briefing Book” makes due with the mind-numbing repetition of clichés. Thus, for example, we are told that “America’s image in the world has plummeted over the last eight year. … Policies affiliated with the Bush administration have grown into a spreading anti-Americanism…” (p. 6). It is as if the Bertelsmann authors could not think of any evidence that anti-Americanism might perhaps have been a problem already before the Bush administration. For example: the 9/11 attacks, the planning for which is thought to have begun in 1999 — and, as so happens, to have begun precisely in Hamburg, a mere three hours drive from Bertelsmann’s corporate headquarters in Gütersloh. The virtually total absence of the 9/11 attacks from the authors’ considerations is indeed striking. It is as if they simply never occurred. There is only one allusion to 9/11 in the entire document and, revealingly, this one allusion is to be found in a reference to a disposition of 9/11 Commission follow-up legislation that the EU would like to see canceled (p. 57).


To the degree that the authors make the pretense of offering any actual analysis, this mostly consists of pseudo-wonkish gibberish, with the tedious drone of meaningless phrases occasionally being broken up by some fantastically mixed metaphors. Thus, for example, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is said to have “found his footing in Washington” during the financial crisis and to have the opportunity in 2009 “to use this footing and cement his international reputation while it shines” (p. 11). Parts of the text appear, moreover, to have been composed by the legendary “Captain Obvious”: countries engaged in Afghanistan are, for instance, advised “to bolster what is working on the ground and fix what is not working” (p. 20).

But the real interest of the “Briefing Book” lies in the demands — or seemingly indeed commands — that are addressed to the incoming president. Given the status of the Iraq War as the cardinal sin of the Bush administration in the grand narrative, the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq is, needless to say, a high priority: the authors dub it “Americans’ top national-security priority” (p. 35). At the same time, however, they call into question the sustainability of the security advances achieved in Iraq and warn that “violence remains only a step away” (p. 39). Just how, then, it could be a “top national-security priority” to leave — and risk Iraq descending into chaos – is anyone’s guess. One is left with the impression that the point of a rapid withdrawal from Iraq must not in fact be national security, after all. It is rather to punish America for the Bush administration’s hubris in having invaded Iraq in the first place: notably, against German objections. If Iraqis must suffer so that America can get its proper comeuppance — then so be it…


The section devoted to “Economic Challenges” is particularly illuminating. It is clear that Bertelsmann wants the EU states to exploit the current crisis to impose a new regime of international financial regulation upon the United States. The U.S. is clearly designated as the culprit for the problems in international financial markets. These are said to have been “contaminated” by the U.S., which ought then to adopt European “best practices” in order to “guarantee that it does not re-occur” (p. 54). The vehicle chosen for achieving a new regulatory regime is the recently created Transatlantic Economic Council (TEC). “Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic must use the TEC as a forum to begin aligning economic regulatory practices quickly,” the authors declare (p. 55). “The next president should remember that the TEC was designed and developed under the leadership of the German chancellor during the country’s EU-Presidency in 2007,” they add in a not-so-subtle hint, “By giving the TEC a central coordinating role in trans-Atlantic economic cooperation, the next president will establish a reservoir of German goodwill.”

Bertelsmann-controlled media have, incidentally, been dutifully stoking the anti-market hysteria that has enveloped Germany in recent months. See, for instance, the Stern cover discussed here, which bears the headline “Greed and Megalomania: How the Wall Street Bosses Squandered Billions and led our Financial System to the Edge of the Abyss.” Bertelsmann itself, as so happens, is privately owned. Given that the owners, the Mohn family, have jealously avoided exposing their business to the kind of public scrutiny and oversight that comes with a stock market listing, one may wonder if Bertelsmann’s crusade against financial markets is entirely disinterested. In 2006, the Mohn family bought back 25% of Bertelsmann shares from the holding company Groupe Bruxelles Lambert, in order to prevent the shares from going public. The move cost the family some €4.5 billion.


Americans would be well-advised to read Bertelsmann’s “Trans-Atlantic Briefing Book” carefully and then to consider how closely the actions of the incoming president follow the Bertelsmann playbook. In the end, one can be thankful that Bertelsmann saw fit to publish its demands.

Bertelsmann has provided Obama with the perfect opportunity to show Americans that he is his own man and that American interests are more important to him than the wishes of his German corporate sponsor.


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