Expert on US-Europe relations Karen Donfried sees rift in transatlantic ties

Karen Donfried delivers a speech at the Cheryl A. Chase Center on Feb. 28, 2019. (Joe Walsh / The Tufts Daily)

German Marshall Fund President Karen Donfried believes the United States’ relationship with Europe is as crucial as ever, even though America is retreating from the international order it helped build.

Donfried called for a recommitment to transatlantic alliances by reforming them into a “new West” at a talk hosted by The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy’s Russia and Eurasia Program yesterday. She described these tectonic shifts in the U.S.-Europe relationship to an audience of about 30 people.

She has split her last 18 years between the German Marshall Fund of the United States — a nonpartisan think tank focused on North America-Europe relations — and public service for former President George W. Bush’s State Department and former President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. Her organization’s work to promote transatlantic cooperation has become no easy feat in recent years, she said, with mounting skepticism of every aspect of U.S.-Europe relations.

While each successive American president has brought his own perspective on the international system, Donfried explained, President Donald Trump is more disruptively skeptical of the country’s trade and security deals than his predecessors.

“He wants to be clear that U.S. national security will no longer be undermined by what he sees as bad deals,” Donfried said. “For President Trump, alliances are not something enduring. They’re something transactional.”

Donfried noted that Trump’s grievances with Europe span from trade and climate policy to national security and foreign policy. On trade, security-minded tariffs on European steel and aluminum have irked the country’s closest allies, and in foreign policy, Trump has withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran despite Europe’s continued resolve. Trump also withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, an international commitment to limit climate change.

Trump’s message on security cooperation is somewhat mixed, Donfried noted. The president has criticized some members of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) for not contributing spending enough on national security, viewing NATO as an unequal partnership that burdens the United States. Still, Trump reaffirmed Article 5, a NATO provision stating that an attack on one member state is treated as an attack on all members.

“Our actions on that front have actually been quite different from some of the things the president has said,” Donfried said.

In response to an audience question, Donfried said it is reasonable to expect European nations to spend more on defense, but the situation is nuanced. She noted European NATO members recognize the need to increase their defense spending, though some countries have not hit NATO’s 2-percent-of-GDP target.

Donfried argued that this skepticism of U.S.-Europe relations represents a structural change that is fundamentally different from previous policy-minded debates. Trump is a symptom of a wider rift, not a root cause, she said.

The most significant global shift in recent years, Donfried said, is the rise of China, which has correlated with a relative decline in American power. Amid this transition, she noted, the U.S. under Trump’s leadership has begun abandoning the status-quo international alliance system, even though the U.S. anchors this system and most European allies support it.

“The United States is the one lashing out at this rule-based order that we created,” Donfried said. “The lead nation in this system, arguably, has gone rogue.”

Another fundamental shift is the increasing instability, disunity and division in Europe, Donfried says, with the United Kingdom speeding toward an exit from the European Union and authoritarian populism on the rise throughout the continent. Donfried noted that the United States has shown a disinterest in helping to mend these divisions. In fact, Trump has stated his support for Brexit.

“We’ve become an agent furthering Europe’s divisions,” Donfried said.

Donfried added that European states’ responses have varied.

Despite these growing divisions, Donfried remains optimistic that a robust U.S.-Europe relationship is still practical. NATO remains important to U.S. security interests, she said, noting that the only time Article 5 has ever been invoked was to support the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks. Europe and North America are also closely linked economically, she said.

“If you look at the facts, the fundamentals are compelling for the U.S. relationship with Europe,” she said. “Our economic health is very much intertwined with a successful Europe.”

Donfried believes U.S. and Europe can reinvigorate their relationship if they commit to reforming institutions like NATO and the World Trade Organization that underpin their ties, making them nimbler and more relevant to the present day. For example, she said, NATO should ensure it meets the growing threat of cyberwarfare. Beyond that, Donfried added that the U.S. is rightly concerned about overextending itself and should use its power prudently.

Ultimately, Donfried argued, shifts in U.S. power have made a strong relationship with Europe more crucial than ever. She says the United States should not address its international challenges on its own.

“The U.S., in meeting the challenges out in this world, will be most effective if we can bandwagon with our allies,” she said. “The logic of working with allies makes the U.S. stronger.”


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