Long host to a vast concentration of US military power, Germany's importance to Washington has waned in the two decades since the Berlin Wall fell. As America redeploys its armed forces towards Asia, many US bases in Germany have been slated for closure and consolidation.
“You get down to the community level and there's real dislocation, real heartache and pain,” Murphy told The Local.
However, Murphy said closing the US bases in places like Schweinfurt and Bamberg in the German state of Bavaria was unavoidable in light of changing geopolitical realities such as the end of the Cold War and the rise of China.
“This continues to be one of the great host countries for our military,” he said. “Nobody begrudges the evolution of our military posture and footprint. It's been evolving since the early 1990s and will continue to do so.”
The ambassador said US forces were working with German officials to alleviate the detrimental economic impact on communities: “I give our military high marks for being thoughtful and caring as we transition.”
Aside from financial implications, the cutting of personal ties between Germans and the US service members, their families and support staff who are leaving, ends a form of grassroots diplomacy for the United States. Murphy hopes to offset this with regional cultural initiatives.
“We recognize we need living, breathing institutions that will attract coming generations and prevent us from growing apart,” he said. “We can't take the next generation for granted.”
Citing the American Academy in Berlin as a good example of successful cultural diplomacy, Murphy said the Embassy supported the development of German-American initiatives around the country – especially in regions where the number of US troops is shrinking.
“We're talking to people in the Mannheim-Heidelberg area about what creative ideas we can have,” he said.
Taxation without expat representation
However, on two issues dear to many Americans living in Germany – taxation and representation – Murphy saw no changes on the horizon.
The United States is one of the few industrialized nations to require its citizens to pay taxes on income earned globally, irking many expats each year. And a recent enforcement drive to report foreign bank accounts to the Internal Revenue Service has even caused some people to take the dramatic step of renouncing their US citizenship.
But the ambassador said he was unaware of any growing discontent among American expats.
“I don't hear that a whole lot from folks,” he said. “I think people overseas aren't looking to take advantage in any way nor should they be discriminated against.”
Murphy also poured cold water on the idea the United States might give its expatriates special political representation in Congress similar to how France recently elected parliamentarians for French citizens living abroad.
“The French model I looked at with interest – we're not going that way,” he said. “We give our citizens around the world the opportunity to vote absentee and that's the way it's going to stay.”
Murphy has frequently praised Germany as a great place to live, but that doesn't mean he's shied away from addressing more controversial issues that could make his host nation uncomfortable.
Last year, he became incensed when a black member of his staff was racially abused after a football match in Berlin. Using such undiplomatic language like “jerks,” his open letter on the incident said intolerance needed to be confronted no matter where it occurred, “whether along a country lane in America or on a sidewalk outside [Berlin's] Olympic Stadium.”
“That really angered me,” he said. “My guidepost is [US civil rights leader] Martin Luther King. I have a dream that my four children will grow up in a country where they are not judged by the colour of their skin, but rather the content of their character.”
Saying his message applied to all forms of discrimination, Murphy made clear he would never presume to lecture Germans.
“These are universal challenges,” he said. “What it never devolves to is: ‘we've figured this out and you guys haven't'. That's just never the discussion with Germany.”