Before assuming her current role in April 2014, Donfried was the special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council at the White House. In that capacity, she was the president’s principal advisor on Europe and led the interagency process on the development and implementation of the president’s European policies. Prior to the White House, Donfried served as the national intelligence officer (NIO) for Europe on the National Intelligence Council, the intelligence community’s center for strategic thinking. As NIO, she directed and drafted strategic analysis to advance senior policymakers’ understanding of Europe.
Donfried first joined GMF in 2001 after having served for ten years as a European specialist at the Congressional Research Service. From 2003 to 2005, she was responsible for the Europe portfolio on the U.S. Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff. She returned to GMF from 2005 to 2010, first as senior director of policy programs and then as executive vice president.
Donfried is a member of the board of trustees of Wesleyan University, her undergraduate alma mater. She serves as a senior fellow at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Council on Germany. From 2014 to 2016, Donfried served as vice chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the United States; in 2017, she became a member of WEF’s Europe Policy Group. Donfried is a member of the team of external advisors to the president of the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly. She was a member of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board from 2015 to 2017.
Donfried has a Ph.D. and MALD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a Magister from the University of Munich, Germany. She holds a bachelor’s in government and German from Wesleyan University. She received the Cross of the Order of Merit from the German Government in 2011, became an officer of the Order of the Crown of Belgium in 2010, and received a Superior Honor Award from the U.S. Department of State in 2005 for her contribution to revitalizing the transatlantic partnership.
Ellie Wainstein CMC '19 interviewed Karen Donfried on Nov. 12, 2018
How would you describe the status of the transatlantic relationship today? Specifically, how has President Trump’s foreign policy affected the alliance?
The state of the transatlantic relationship today is troubled. We cannot overstate what a shock the presidency of Donald Trump has been for many of the United States’ European allies. These countries feel that they have benefited tremendously from the international order that the U.S. and Europe built together after the end of World War II. It is the “liberal international order,” which is based on democracy, free market economy, rule of law, and rights of the individual. Our European allies feel that they have prospered during the ensuing 70 years since the end of World War II. They have strong democracies and flourishing economies. They have looked to the U.S. as the lead nation in this order. With President Trump, they are finding that he has a very different view, as compared to past presidents, of the relationship with Europe. Instead of seeing this alliance as being mutually beneficial, he seems to feel that the United States has gotten a bad deal from its European allies, whether with regard to economics, with some countries running large trade surpluses with the U.S., or on the defense side, with not all NATO allies contributing the sought-after 2% of their GDP on defense. You could argue Germany is the poster child for Donald Trump on this. We have seen him particularly critical of Chancellor Merkel. All of this has led to a situation where transatlantic relations are fraught.
In anticipation of the planned meeting between Trump and Xi in late November, many hope a compromise will be found to de-escalate the current trade war between the United States and China. Tensions have been rising between the two countries. However, Europe is expected to be the big loser if a solution is not found. Could you discuss the impact of the U.S.-China trade war on Europe?
There will be several losers if this trade war continues to escalate. What is difficult for the Europeans, when we talk about the trade agenda, is that President Trump is lighting various fires on trade and the Europeans feel as if they're in a receiving mode with very little power to affect that trade agenda. This started with President Trump wanting to renegotiate NAFTA. One might think that the renegotiation really had an impact on Mexico and Canada, but many European countries have invested in the U.S. to benefit from that single supply chain across the United States, Mexico, and Canada. As a result, many European countries were deeply concerned about NAFTA’s future, yet felt that there was little that they could do to influence its renegotiation. They feel the same way about the U.S. trade war with China. Again, it will have important implications for them, but there is very little that they can do to influence how these trade negotiations play out.
With the U.S. midterm elections resulting in Democrats retaking the House, many fear that the new gridlock in Washington could result in Trump buckling down on the trade war. In addition, Democrats, historically, tend to be more skeptical of free-trade deals. How should we expect these new hurdles to impact the trade war and Trump’s decisions making moving forward?
Clearly the politics of trade has changed over the past year and a half. The Republican Party used to be pro-free trade and Democrats were much more skeptical of free trade because they were concerned about environmental and labor provisions in those free trade agreements. We've definitely seen the stance that President Trump has taken influence how the Republican and Democratic Parties are positioning themselves on trade. As a result, it will be very telling what the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives means for President Trump’s trade agenda. There's some question about whether President Trump will be able to get congressional approval for the renegotiated NAFTA, the USMCA, in the lame duck session of Congress because some Republicans are skeptical about USMCA as well. If it doesn't get approved at the end of this year, in that lame duck session, it will go to a new Congress where you will have a Democratic majority in the House. There are a lot of open questions about how President Trump's trade agenda will move forward and certainly some of those questions are occasioned by the incoming Democratic majority in the House. It is going to be fascinating to see how the politics of trade develops in the final two years of President Trump's first term.
In the recent visit between Trump and French President Macron, Macron proposed a true European army, explaining that it would help ease the burden that European defense places on NATO, which seems in line with Trump’s desires. However, soon after hearing about the idea, Trump tweeted that it was “very insulting”. What would be the implications of the creation of a true European army? Is it feasible? How would it benefit or harm relations between Europe and the United States?
The French have long supported a European Army and the idea has gotten wind in its sails because of the singular view President Trump has of our European allies. For the 70 years since NATO was created, every U.S. president, whether Republican or Democrat, has been a big booster of NATO, defining it as United States’ most important Alliance. One of the important aspects of NATO is the collective defense guarantee, Article 5. Article 5 has only been invoked once and that was after the attacks of 9/11, when our allies came to the defense of the United States. In addition, our allies have been with us on the ground in Afghanistan from the moment that we undertook that mission until today. For 17 years, they've been with us in Afghanistan because of their commitment to the United States. A robust NATO, traditionally, has been seen as a positive factor for the U.S.. However, President Trump, during his campaign, talked about NATO being obsolete and he's been very critical of those allies, who are not spending 2% of their GDP on defense. In addition, we had a contentious NATO Summit this past July. All of this has made our allies feel insecure about the U.S. security commitment to Europe.
Over the weekend, President Trump was with President Macron and other European leaders in France to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. In that context, President Macron made some comments in support of a European army. He said, I'm paraphrasing now, that a European army was needed to meet the challenge of Russia, China, and the United States. That is what triggered President Trump’s tweet.
How realistic the creation of a European army is remains a big question. I don't think it is terribly realistic because there are different views across Europe on the merits of a European army. France is very supportive, but you go to a country like Poland and the Poles see this big, aggressive neighbor on their border called Russia. The Poles aren't convinced that the French and Germans would or could protect them from Russia so they embrace the United States and Donald Trump because they believe that they need the U.S. security guarantee. The reality is that President Trump’s engagement with our European allies is further dividing Europe, thus making that European army harder to achieve, even though, as you suggested in your question, President Trump should welcome Europeans taking greater responsibility for Europe’s security.
Many European leaders view President Trump’s scrapping of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia as a national security threat to their own countries. How have such actions harmed relations between the United States and Europe? Is Trump accurately taking into account the impact that such decisions have on the United States’ closest allies? Or is he simply focused on the United States?
Most of us who have worked on Europe for a long time continue to see the INF Treaty, the treaty that banned that class of weapons, as a truly important achievement between the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union. The significance of that treaty today has been marred by the fact that, reportedly, U.S. intelligence has shown that Russia has developed a missile that contravenes the treaty. The U.S. has been in discussions with its NATO allies about the Russian violation and they had not decided on a path forward. The fact that the U.S. has decided to withdraw from the treaty is unfortunate because the U.S. had the moral high ground, given that Russia was violating the treaty. In a sense, the U.S. has given that moral high ground away by withdrawing from the treaty. Interestingly, I think that the reason President Trump decided to withdraw from the treaty was not related to European security interests, but as a result of U.S. concerns about China’s activities in Asia. There are many who argue that it would be beneficial for the United States to deploy land-based intermediate nuclear forces in Asia to counter the Chinese threat. The INF treaty prohibits the U.S. from doing that, but there is no inhibition on China developing these forces because China is not a signatory to the treaty. This has made the issue further complicated in the European context because the European allies feel their security concerns are not being adequately considered. It has become another issue that is dividing the U.S. and Europe at this moment in time.
How do Europeans view Washington’s confusing approach to Russia under the Trump administration?
The Europeans have been confused by the Trump administration's approach to Russia because the Europeans see at least two different policies towards Russia. They have seen President Trump, on multiple occasions, try to engage Vladimir Putin and make a deal with Russia, and they have been concerned that Trump would make a deal over their heads. To name one example, there was this contentious NATO Summit this past July and President Trump went from that Summit to Helsinki for a meeting with Russian President Putin. To the outside observer, it seemed as though President Trump was very harsh with his European allies and quite soft in his meeting with President Putin. The Europeans watched this and saw President Trump, again, wanting to make a deal with Russia. But the Europeans look at other people in the administration, whether it is Secretary of Defense Mattis or Secretary of State Pompeo, and see a much more traditional approach to Russia. Members of the cabinet continue to express upset over Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the ongoing war in Ukraine’s east and to express concern over Russia's meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. Add to that the role of the U.S. Congress, where Russia and NATO are two of the issues that have bipartisan support, with Members pushing for a tough policy against Russia and continued strong support for NATO. Congress has passed legislation putting in place additional sanctions against Russia. All of this is quite confusing to our European allies because they are uncertain about the direction of U.S. policy.
What is Europe’s current strategy in handling the Trump administration? How would you assess it?
Over the past year and a half, we have seen that Europe will not unite against the United States, because where you sit determines what you see. If you look at France, and we talked earlier about French support for a European army, the headline would be strategic autonomy. France is arguing that Europe needs to pursue a policy of strategic autonomy with regard to the U.S. Basically, many French would argue the United States has gone bad and Europe cannot rely on the U.S. anymore. As a result, Europe needs to get serious about committing resources to enable Europeans to pursue an independent policy.
Then you go to a country like Germany, where there are some Germans who find strategic autonomy a very appealing policy to pursue, but Chancellor Merkel is in a different place. She seems to espouse a policy of strategic patience, noting that while the United States has changed in critical ways under President Trump, he is a singular American president and we don’t know if he will serve a second term. If he doesn't, it is plausible that whomever succeeds President Trump will have a more traditional view of the European allies because there is much evidence to show the extent to which the United States benefits from a strong relationship with Europe. So, from the German perspective, they want to focus on keeping the connective tissue in place in order to be able to try to rebuild the relationship at some later point, appreciating that the relationship will not return to where it was before Trump.
You would encounter a third school of thought if you travel further east to Poland, where the Poles see a very real security threat to Eastern Europe from Russia. They believe they need the U.S. to defend themselves from Russia. We recently saw the Polish president visit Washington and reiterate that the Poles are willing to spend two billion dollars if the U.S. will permanently base forces in Poland. Currently, we have rotating forces in Poland, but the Polish government wants a permanent base. The Polish president has even said that he would call it Fort Trump to boot. Thus, we see a variety of reactions to the Trump Administration.
Are there any finals thoughts you would like to leave us with? Is there anything we should specifically be looking for while watching this relationship unfold?
The thought I would like to leave you with is that, while we have talked about the U.S.-European relationship at the policy level and specifically policy-making at the national level, I think lots of different actors have agency in this relationship. If we are talking about climate, U.S. Governors and U.S. Mayors are actively engaged in that conversation, and civil society has a role to play. I think that students at Claremont McKenna College should not take the U.S. relationship with Europe for granted. This relationship really matters to the United States. The largest trade and investment relationship in the world is the one between the U.S. and Europe. The Europeans are our most important military allies. We share values. None of us should take this relationship for granted and I would like to encourage all of us, from students to national policy makers, to think about what this relationship means for U.S. interests and advocate to keep this relationship strong and vibrant.
President Donald J. Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron at bilateral meeting Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, at the Elysee Palace in Paris. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead) via Wikimedia Commons.