“A family connection” and academic interest leads to 25 years (and counting) in German-US relations

It’s not surprising that Dr. Karen Donfried, President of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), would have a passion for transatlantic relations. “It’s originally a family connection and then that sort of combined with my academic interest led to this career,” said Donfried, who earned a Ph.D and MALD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a Magister from the University of Munich before taking positions at the Congressional Research Service, U.S. Department of State, and The White House.

But her rise to prominence as a leading expert on US-German relations could have been waylaid early on by a group of elementary school students.

As a young child, Donfried’s family moved to Germany, so her father, a New Testament scholar, could complete doctoral studies at the University of Heidelberg. “I went to German kindergarten and we had a babysitter who was German,” said Donfried. “We came back to the US when I was four and I actually had an accent to my English and was teased by the other kids.”

She went to speech therapy and vowed never to speak German again.

Photo courtesy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Donfried succeeded in avoiding “The Awful German Language” — as Mark Twain describes it in one of Donfried’s favorite essays — until high school. “I was lucky enough to be in a high school that offered German, which is increasingly rare.” She began taking German again, and combined with her interest in political science, returned to Heidelberg in college for a semester abroad, and then once again after graduation on a fellowship from the German American Exchange Service (DAAD) to complete a Master’s degree at the University of Munich.

While writing her doctoral dissertation, the Berlin Wall fell. “Sometimes the comment I make is It went from being a political science dissertation to being a history dissertation overnight!” joked Donfried. In fact, her research was still safe, but the event remains the most profound change in the global system that she has lived through. “And it’s amazing how hard those things are to predict, when you think about how surprised we all were when it happened.”

After finishing her academic training in 1991, Donfried joined the Congressional Research Service (CRS). One could consider 2016 therefore as her 25th anniversary as a professional European analyst. She has seen US interest in Europe — and Germany more specifically — evolve continuously over this time due to a wide range of external factors.

At the start of her career at CRS, the German-American relationship was dwarfed by some of the other things that were happening in that time period like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Balkan Wars.

She left CRS to work at GMF for the first time in 2001, but stayed only two years after being invited to join Secretary Colin Powell’s team at the US State Department. “I thought, do I really want to do this?” said Donfried. “I mean, this was in the immediate wake of the Iraq War when President Bush was not on speaking terms with Schröder and Chirac.” But Secretary Powell’s staff assured her how committed the Secretary was to trying to rebuild those relationships. “And I thought, I suppose there’s not really a more interesting time to go into government than when a relationship that you think is critically important is in very bad shape.”

Donfried returned to GMF from 2005 to 2010 and watched German public approval of the US rise through the election campaign of now-President Barack Obama and then drift off again as disappointment set in, chiefly because of the President’s use of drone strikes and his failure to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.

As the US-German relationship deteriorated once again, Donfried once again returned to public service, first at the National Intelligence Council and subsequently at the National Security Council in the spring of 2013. “Within weeks of my having made that transition to the NSC, the Snowden disclosures broke,” said Donfried. “And of course there are many chapters in that story….”

“Then you had war on the European continent, which I did not think I was going to see again in my lifetime after the Balkan Wars,” said Donfried, referring to the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and the violence in the east of Ukraine, which is all still ongoing. Oddly, the incredibly close German-American cooperation in response to this issue helped heal this critical partnership more than any other gesture of reconciliation from the United States.

“I think when the US looks around the world and asks itself who are our core partners, it is the Europeans and Germany because of the consequential role it plays it in Europe. Germany is clearly one of the US’s leading partners,” said Donfried.


In early 2014, Donfried was elected as president of the GMF, an organization that had grown dramatically in the decade since she first worked there. Part of her mission now in shaping the future of GMF is to ensure that everyone understands the transatlantic prism through which GMF does all of its extensive work as a hybrid foundation and thinktank.

And once again, Donfried found herself beginning a new chapter of her professional life at a time filled with uncertainty. She described a “confluence of crises” affecting US-European relations, including mass refugee and migration flows, terrorism, an ongoing Eurozone crisis, an aggressive Russia, and the possibility of a “Brexit.”

“This matters of course for Europe, but it also matters hugely for the United States, if, as I articulated earlier, our foundational partner is Europe,” said Donfried. “In my mind, this is GMF’s moment! If there is any period in history where an organization like this could make a contribution, it is now.”

Of note, Donfried is GMF’s first female president since its founding in 1972. In February 2015, when Chancellor Merkel came to Washington in preparation for the G-7, she hosted breakfast for women leaders in Washington on that year’s G-7 agenda including US Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, and the heads of organizations such as La Rassa and the Wilson Center.

“And I was there too! And I thought, Wow, this is really pretty cool!” Donfried said that Chancellor Merkel must clearly be aware of her own accomplishment as Germany’s first female chancellor, now in her third term.

“Of course a lot has changed, and there are a lot of women who are in really important positions, but for that reason, I’m even more struck today when I do end up in a meeting where I am the only woman,” said Donfried. “That shouldn’t really happen, but it still does, so it suggests to me that there is still work that needs to be done in terms of people recognizing how many talented women are in positions of importance and should be a part of conversations, whatever the substantive issue is being discussed.”


What is clear is that Donfried’s adoration for Germany has not wavered, her near miss with elementary school teasing notwithstanding. She speaks inspired and inspiringly about the unique experience of a country that has held both her heart and her head rapt since her father’s studies first returned her family there in her childhood.

“I am fascinated by Berlin because no other country has been able to rebuild its capital at this moment in history,” said Donfried. “A country that has such a long and rich tradition is finding itself anew — how you do interpret that history, what it is you save, and what it is you rebuild?” She saw first-hand as Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Reichstag in 1995, just prior to the building’s reconstruction — a physical manifestation of Germany’s ongoing debate around reconciliation with its past. “I thought it was so wonderful to do that because it captured that idea that it’s this very old building that has an incredibly complicated history and you would unwrap it in this new democracy,” said Donfried.

From the grand wrapping of the Reichstag to a few pieces of the Berlin Wall a friend sent her (“They’re not impressive pieces — there’s no nice paint and they’re little”), Donfried is reminded how something that seemed unchangeable changed. Perhaps this is how she has remained so motivated over the past quarter-century as she works to shepherd the transatlantic relationship through the crises of the day.


One More Question…

What is something that people don’t know about you but might be surprised to find out?

People might be surprised to know that my mother, who is a nurse by training and worked as a nurse for most of my childhood — all of my childhood — then, because of a long-standing family interest in rebuilding old Mercedes, took over this old Mercedes auto parts store. Which has meant that I, on occasion, have traveled across the Atlantic with a fuel-injection pump, so Einspritzpumpe,in my luggage. I’ve not done this in this job! This goes some ways back, but it’s unusual. So it’s an interesting combination of a father who is a theologian and a mother who has done some interesting things.

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