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Former Biden State Department Official Karen Donfried Reflects on US-German Relations at Harvard CES Lecture

Karen Donfried, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, spoke at the Center for European Studies on Thursday.
Karen Donfried, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, spoke at the Center for European Studies on Thursday. By Courtesy of Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies
By Luka Pavikjevikj and Dailan Xu, Crimson Staff Writers

Karen Donfried, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, delivered the fourth annual Guido Goldman Lecture on Germany at the Center for European Studies Thursday evening.

Donfried, who served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs from 2021 to 2023, offered six key takeaways from 20 months of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Government professor Daniel F. Ziblatt, who will lead the CES beginning in January, introduced Donfried and moderated the conversation with the audience that followed the lecture.

Donfried commenced the lecture by paying tribute to the late Guido Goldman — the co-founder of CES — whom she met at the center in the early 1980s, an interaction she said left her “in awe.”

In her address, Donfried not only emphasized the important role of American leadership in establishing transatlantic unity on the war in Ukraine, but also underscored policy differences between allied nations.

“The reality is that the European allies and partners of the United States continue to have different foreign policy perspectives, whether the issue is Russia or Israel,” Donfried said. “As we know, member states of the European Union have not given competence over foreign and security policy to Brussels.”

“National differences prevail,” she added.

Donfried also focused on how 20th-century German history has influenced German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s careful handling of military assistance to Ukraine.

“Scholz was uncomfortable with the idea of German tanks crossing Ukraine in conjuring up images from World War II,” Donfried said. “A priority for him has been bringing the German public along on these policies to ensure ongoing domestic support.”

Donfried also cautioned against compromising support for Ukraine in order to support Israel.

“If the Israel-Hamas war takes Washington’s attention away from Ukraine and diverts weapons like ammunition and missile defense from Ukraine, Russia benefits,” Donfried said.

“There is also the related issue of Ukraine losing support in the Arab and Muslim world because of its strong pro-Israel statements,” she added.

Donfried concluded the lecture by stressing the importance of cooperation between the U.S. and its allies.

“The critical mission Guido left all of us with is to strengthen that bridge,” Donfried said.

In an interview following the lecture, Donfried highlighted how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had transformed decades of German foreign policy.

“Scholz overturned the ban on sending lethal weapons to conflict zones. Scholz created this 100 billion euro defense fund because he acknowledged there had been an under-investment in the German military,” she said.

“Had you not had that Russian invasion, there would have been a continuity that simply is not there because of the reality of what Russia has done,” she added.

Donfried also analyzed French President Emmanuel Macron’s hopes for a common European defense policy, but said she didn’t expect such a policy to be implemented in the near future.

“Macron wants to see that integration continue into these other fields as foreign policy and defense policy. I think it’s very challenging to do that,” Donfried said of European integration.

Still, Donfried said she believes Macron’s proposal is in the best interest of the U.S.

“I think it would lead to a more zero-sum European military,” Donfried said. “That is a net positive, but I think we’re actually quite far away from seeing Europe achieve those goals.”

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Social Sciences DivisionHarvard Kennedy SchoolUniversity