Interview: 'Try to reboot the international liberal order'
Interview Diplomacy & Foreign Affairs

Interview: 'Try to reboot the international liberal order'

16 May 2018 - 14:45
Photo: NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg with Karen Donfried in Brussels, 2014. Source: North Atlantic Treaty Organization / Flickr
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The week of April 23rd was dedicated to the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Marshall Plan or, to be more precise, to mark the historic moment since the first aid was delivered to the Netherlands in 1948.1  On this occasion, dr. Karen Donfried, President of the German Marshall Fund of the United States of America, paid a three day-visit to the Netherlands where she engaged with students from a wide variety of disciplines, as well as with policy experts from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.2 As a former adviser to President Obama on Europe, she is an expert in transatlantic relations and hence an interesting candidate for an interview about the current crisis in transatlantic relations, and more broadly, the challenges to the liberal international order.

Dr. Donfried, to start with the elephant in the room. On both sides of the Atlantic, we have had quite a few crises. On the European side there was Brexit, trouble on its eastern borders, a refugee crisis, rising populism and a financial crisis. Meanwhile, in the United States we witnessed the election of Donald Trump. This has also impacted transatlantic relations. Moreover, it seems as if the liberal international order that was so carefully constructed after World War II is falling apart. What do you view to be the nature of this crisis and how bad is it?

“In the United States, you see a swath of the American public – and many of those people voted for Donald Trump – who feel a crisis of identity, perhaps due to losing a job, or knowing others who lost their job – whether they are coalminers in West-Virginia or working for a manufacturer in Pennsylvania or Ohio. What they are hearing is ‘free trade equals lost jobs’. They feel that one of the tenets of that liberal order [free trade, ed.] has not only failed to deliver for them, but has harmed them. They do not believe their children will achieve or surpass the standard of living they have had for themselves, and their future outlook is pessimistic. In effect, this also means that part of their identity relating to work is being undermined.”

“The other side of the coin is that this part of the American public also feels overwhelmed by the volume of migration. This leads to a feeling that their cultural identity is being challenged. Donald Trump’s message of ‘Making American Great Again’ and his promise to ‘fix’ what has harmed Americans, thus spoke to the anger and embitterment of a large part of the American public. In a sense, they dismissed aspects of Trump’s character that would normally disqualify people from being president. The same sentiments can also be felt across Europe, where populist parties are preaching from the same gospel, and are engaging that same part of European publics. So, I really see Trump as a symptom of a crisis in the liberal international order. I think we see other symptoms across Europe, and my argument is that we need to address their causes.”

If we can view Trump as a ‘symptom’ of a ‘system in crisis’, what then would be the kind of policy that our leaders need to adopt in order to cure the diseases that are causing these symptoms?

“Depending on where one sits on the spectrum of political parties you will propose different answers, and I think it is appropriate that we debate in our societies what the answers are. With respect to the U.S. we need to look at policies that can influence the enormous income inequality. So, this relates to tax policies as well as dealing with people losing their jobs. I do not believe that the loss of jobs can be contributed to free trade agreements. In some cases, they may speed up a process of manufacturing jobs leaving the U.S., but these jobs may be leaving anyway, because the cost of labour is lower in other countries, or because of automation. This means there is also a critical question around the future of work in advanced industrialized societies. Here the U.S. has not done as good a job as some European countries -thinking how to help workers develop other skills, for instance. This would be a great place for transatlantic learning.”

President Barack Obama discusses the situation in Syria with senior advisors in the Oval Office with Karen Donfried on the left. Source: Obama White House / Flickr
President Barack Obama discusses the situation in Syria with senior advisors in the Oval Office with Karen Donfried on the left in 2013. Source: Obama White House / Flickr

“And then we have to tackle the issue around migration. If you look at the figures, there has been an enormous amount of migration to the U.S. over the past thirty years. There is no question that migrants have contributed tremendously to American society, and I am an example of that myself – my grandparents immigrated to America. The U.S. considers itself a ‘land of immigrants’, but within that understanding, we must ask ourselves ‘What are the limits?’ Donald Trump promised to build a wall (though we are beyond that, technologically speaking), but there are lots of other policy solutions. Most importantly, there has to be an honest conversation about what the right level of migration is for the U.S..”

Would this be an example for ‘transatlantic learning’, where Europe is doing a better job than the U.S.?

“Definitely not. An area where we could learn from Europe would be the future of work.”

And the other way around, can Europe learn from the U.S.?

“In terms of migration there is a big difference. The U.S. – for a large part – controls its external borders, but for Europe this is a much greater challenge. The EU depends on individual member states to control these borders and we see that some member states do a far better job at that than others. Greece, for example, has a difficult task to secure its borders due to all the islands. But what do you do with member states that lack the capabilities to control their border? Does the EU need to take a harder line and say: ‘If you want to be a part of Schengen and you cannot control your border then you have two choices, either you leave Schengen, or a European border patrol takes control of your external border’? Now, most of the member states say they do not want the latter, because that is about sovereignty. But they don’t want the former either – they do not want to leave Schengen. These are some hard choices Europe has to grapple with. I think the EU has to go beyond Frontex in trying to create a European border force.”

“More importantly, when it comes to these issues, we need to have a more honest debate in both Europe and the U.S. Most people are probably not on either extreme in the discussion about migration. They understand the value of migration, they understand in many cases their own heritage, but they do not want to feel that they have lost control – which is at the knob of this loss of identity. I think the role politicians and policymakers need to play is to show that we do – for the most part – control our destinies.”

What would be the way to address these problems and to restore faith in the liberal order? How can our leaders give U.S. back a sense of control?

“I would argue that we first have to address the internal challenges to the liberal order. Up until a couple of years ago, we – those of U.S. who believe in a liberal order, who have been in the policy world – were much more focused on the external challenges of the order. We were thinking of the challenge that China posed, the challenge that autocratic governments posed, and that illiberal democracies posed. But – and that is important too – our liberal model – and what I mean by that is an order based on democratic systems of governance, free market economies, rule of law, rights of the individual – is only going to be attractive to others (for example the Chinese and the Russians) if our own citizens believe this model is delivering. So, I think we need to heal our own societies before we can be that powerful model for others in the world.”

The post-war liberal order that came into being with Bretton Woods in 1944 (and which was ‘saved’ for Europe with the Marshall Plan in 1947) in effect did just that. By reconciling international trade agreements with domestic economic policies the U.S. and Europe broke the economic nationalism of the 1930s, and created a powerful model that aspired to the world. The problem that troubled post-war policymakers seems to have resurfaced to a certain extent. How do we reconcile international trade agreements with domestic economic (and social) policies? Do you think that today the Marshall Plan could serve as a blueprint for re-establishing the values of free trade, democracy, individual rights and the rule of law, and make them resilient for the 21st century?

“One of the fundamental differences between 2018 and 1947 is the dominance of U.S. power at the end of World War II. The U.S. was the only country in the world that could stand up and say: ‘we have the resources to rebuild the European economy, and we have a vision that it is in our interest to put that twelve per cent of our national budget toward that goal’. There was U.S. leadership with a vision of a world that they wanted to contribute to creating, based on these liberal values. And they put resources toward that vision. If you fast-forward to 2018, we have experienced a global power shift in those ensuing seventy years.”

Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government in Brussels: Donald Trump and Jens Stoltenberg. Source: NATO / Flickr.
Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government in Brussels: Donald Trump and Jens Stoltenberg. Source: NATO / Flickr. 

“Necessarily, once powers rise in a global order, that affects the powers that have been leading in this order. This is why I think of it as a relative shift of power, rather than an absolute one. But it strengthens my belief that in 2018, the U.S. needs to work with its allies even more than it considered it needed at the end of World War II – that is, if the U.S. in 2018 wants to continue to exert power in this system. This is why we should preserve the transatlantic relationship – based on interests, values, but also on trust. The interests are still very clearly there, as are the values. But what I worry about when I look back at the past year, is that some U.S. policies have eroded the trust that has been there in the transatlantic relationship since 1947.”

“It is critical to work together – not to try preserving the liberal international order, but to try rebooting that order, so that it meets the challenges of the 21st century. Not that we say ‘oh, everything is perfect, you just misunderstand’. No, it is to say that the values are not tired, but maybe the institutions need to be updated. Maybe we need to think more creatively about those institutions and whether they are meeting today’s challenges. It is not that there should not be change, but we should not be questioning the underlying values. Let U.S. not confuse what needs to be updated and what needs to be preserved.”

After touring The Netherlands for several days, talking to students, staff from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other people, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of transatlantic relations?

“To start on a brighter note, it has been delightful to be out of Washington for a few days, because in Washington we are so caught up with the daily drama of disclosures taking place. I worry, and my trip here has given me a new perspective on that, that in the U.S. we are far too focused on ourselves and those internal drama’s. We should give much more thought to the U.S. role in the world, and the goals we are setting for ourselves as a country. I also worry about what that retrenchment of U.S. leadership means. So this note leads to a serious concern.”

“A second thing that struck me is the understanding for some of Trump’s policies. For example, his insistence that Europeans raise their defence capabilities. Some students I spoke with even mentioned Trump may be encouraging Europe to do that, as the U.S. is becoming a less reliable partner. I find it interesting that there is this view that just because Donald Trump says something, that does not mean it is wrong, and that maybe he has a point. I find this new European commitment to raising defence capabilities a good thing. But I find it unfortunate that what may be pushing Europeans to do that, is a lack of confidence in the U.S. as an ally.”

“The third thing that struck me, is the understanding that the U.S. is a lot bigger than its president. And of course it matters when Donald Trump says something or tweets something. People listen to what he says, and they look at his actions, but there are also people looking beyond that. They say we need to look at what happens in Congress, we need to look at what happens in U.S. states, acknowledge the many U.S. governors who remain committed to – for example – the Paris Climate Accord. Or the many mayors who remain committed to the Climate Accord or trade agenda’s. I have been struck and impressed by this holistic view of what the United States is.”


[1] On 26 April 1948, the ‘Noordam’ ship docked in the port of Rotterdam, bring the first Marshall Aid to The Netherlands.

[2] Dr. Donfried stayed in The Netherlands from 23-26 April, invited by Utrecht University, made possible by a Special Grant from the United States Embassy to the Kingdom of The Netherlands.

  • 1On 26 April 1948, the ‘Noordam’ ship docked in the port of Rotterdam, bring the first Marshall Aid to The Netherlands.
  • 2Dr. Donfried stayed in The Netherlands from 23-26 April, invited by Utrecht University, made possible by a Special Grant from the United States Embassy to the Kingdom of The Netherlands.


Jorrit Steehouder
PhD candidate at Utrecht University