Strengthening transatlantic ties

GMF President Karen Donfried on the Ukraine crisis, the TTIP free trade agreement and the NSA affair.

Stefan Maria Rother - Karen Donfried

Dr. Donfried, since April 2014 you have been President of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. What are your goals for the future?

The German Marshall Fund of the United States is dedicated to strengthening the transatlantic relationship on issues that are relevant to policymakers. That takes us beyond Europe, certainly, but in everything GMF does, the angle taken is that of the transatlantic prism. I think there’s a need for GMF to clarify its mission and make sure everyone understands that everything we do rests on that transatlantic basis.

In your words, what is special about GMF’s relationship to Germany?

We are an American organization, but we would not exist without the generous gift presented by Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1972 on behalf of the German government. What does that mean in 2014? To me it means that we should emphasize this special relationship to Germany specifically at a time when Germany is arguably the most important country in Europe. As we witnessed during the Eurozone crisis. And interestingly we are seeing it now in the Ukraine crisis, whereas traditionally we thought of the United Kingdom and France as the leading European powers in terms of foreign security policy. I think Germany is playing a particularly significant role in this critical period in transatlantic relations. All of this leads us to the question of how GMF can contribute purposefully to German-American relations. In general, GMF should do all it can to engage the next generation on both sides of the Atlantic. We have young transatlantic networks in several of our international offices and with our longstanding Marshall Memorial Fellowship program we bring Europeans to the US and send Americans to Europe. We want to make certain we take the next generation along with us.

Speaking of the Ukraine crisis, does the so-called community of shared Western values play a significant role in German and US efforts to solve the crisis?

I think what is being challenged today in Ukraine are the values of democracy and rule of law that have been so important in our shared transatlantic policy in the post-Cold War period – and certainly before then, too. After the end of the Cold War, Americans and their European allies agreed on a policy to spread democracy, the free-market economy and the rule of law eastwards in Europe, and we have been very successful in many ways. As the examples of the enlargement of NATO and the expansion of the European Union show. However, the policy rested on the premise that Russia had made a strategic decision that cooperating with us was more in its interest than engaging in open conflict. That assumption now no longer holds true, as can be seen from Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Now this is a challenge to our transatlantic policy, and I would argue that there has been a great deal of transatlantic coordination in the response to that challenge.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. What role does history play in the current crisis?

If one considers President Obama’s last trip to Europe, his first stop was Poland, and many people saw that as a symbol of reassurance, showing the power of NATO’s collective defense guarantee. But it’s also interesting in the context you mention. President Obama also commemorated the 25th anniversary of the first free and fair elections in Poland, reminding us all of the path Poland has followed over the last quarter century and one so different to Ukraine’s path. Yet 25 years ago the positions of Poland and Ukraine were not that different. Thanks to the decisions Poland made, today it is prosperous, has a well-rooted democracy, a flourishing free-market economy and vibrant democratic institutions.

On the subject of the economy, the negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership have made some headway, but there have also been various criticisms of the TTIP agreement voiced. What makes you think that the negotiations will nevertheless be successful?

In terms of economic growth, the benefits of TTIP to economies on both sides of the Atlantic are significant. The second key reason is that we are in a period in history where tectonic plates are shifting. China will outpace the US economy in the next several years. That said, the US and Eur­ope today still account for the greater part of the world economy. I think the extent to which we can further a rules-based order is hugely in both of our interests. TTIP is not about lowering standards, it is about harmonizing them in ways that allow both sides to maintain what’s important to them. My hope is that we can have a conversation across the Atlantic and talk honestly about what people’s concerns and fears are. In the negotiations there’s already been space for civil society participation. It is very important to ensure that voices from civil society are a part of the negotiations going forward.

The German-American relationship is overshadowed by the NSA affair. What can the United States do to regain trust?

President Obama understands how salient and sensitive this issue is in Germany. Which is why he has, and this is unusual, spoken at such length and so frequently in recent months about the intelligence services’ activities. The articles about the NSA’s activities have set off various processes, an internal review of NSA programs as well as analysis by external experts. The results of those processes were made known in the President’s “State of the Union” address on January 17. Among other things, President Obama extended his announcement about not targeting any of Chancellor Merkel’s communications. He also said that the US was looking at how to extend privacy protections that apply to Americans. However, I don’t think we have sorted out how to have a conversation about the NSA issue. While I understand why this issue may pit Germans against Americans, we should remember that Americans are grappling with the same questions. Where to draw the line between protection and security, on the one hand, and safeguarding civil liberties, on the other? That is a debate we should have together, and use instruments like the Transatlantic Cyber Dialogue initiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. My hope is that GMF can also be helpful as a forum for having those kinds of conversations. ▪

“DE” editor Johannes Göbel interviewed Dr. Karen Donfried at the end of June 2014 in Berlin.


The first female GMF president

Karen Donfried has been closely connected to the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) for a long time. She held various posts in the organization from 2001 until 2003 and from 2005 until 2010, most recently serving as executive vice president. Before becoming the first woman in GMF’s history to hold the presidency, she was President Obama’s closest advisor on Germany and worked at the White House as “Senior Director for European Affairs on the National Security Council”. Even if the GMF is now represented with offices in ten European countries, Karen Donfried attaches particular value to strengthening German-American relations.

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