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What did European allies hear in Trump’s Poland speech?

July 6, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump downplayed the importance of NATO and the role of the European Union, while promoting improved U.S.-Russia ties. On Thursday, President Trump tried to reassure European allies that his administration is in sync with them. Judy Woodruff talks to Karen Donfried and Paula Dobriansky, two former state department officials, about Trump on the world stage.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we’ve heard, President Trump has voiced, at times, contradictory views on the U.S.’s relationship with its European allies and with Russia.

To parse out where things stand after the first full day of the president’s trip abroad and the road ahead, we turn to Paula Dobriansky. She was under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs during the George W. Bush administration. She’s now a senior fellow at Harvard University and she joins us from Warsaw.

And Karen Donfried was special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. She’s now the president of the German Marshall Fund in the U.S., an organization which seeks to straighten relations with Europe.

And we welcome both of you to the program.

Paula Dobriansky, to you first in Warsaw. Overall, what would you say the message is from President Trump that’s come across to his European listeners?

PAUL DOBRIANSKY, Former George W. Bush State Department Official: Well, the primary message was that European security matters to us greatly, that towards that end that the forward deployment of our troops on the border matter greatly. They reassure not just the Poles but the neighborhood. And also the important of the alliance, that Article 5, our collective defense is crucial and toward that end, that alliance has played an important role in the past. It does now and it will in the future.

And let me just add, combined with that, it was very clear that, related, the president also made it very clear that he was very concerned about Russian aggression and the need to have a cessation of the violence and the conflict in Ukraine, as well as in Syria. He talked about Islamic radical terrorism, and then he also talked about energy security, which hasn’t gotten a lot of attention and it’s behind me here at the royal castle where he gave a speech actually before what’s called the Three Seas Summit, an initiative paid by the Poles, the Croats and there were 12 countries from Central Europe that spoke to this issue about the need for energy dependents, energy security and energy efficiency and the establishment of an infrastructure in Central Europe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Karen Donfried, are those the main messages that to you have come across from this trip?

KAREN DONFRIED, Former Obama National Security Council Staff: There were two things that struck me about President Trump’s stop in Poland. One was what a big boost this was to the current Polish government.

Poland is an overwhelmingly pro-American country and that’s significant in the context of a European Union that’s been quite critical of democratic backsliding in Poland. So, the European Commission has been looking at whether Poland is staying true to rule of law, independent judiciary, freedom of the press. So, it was very significant for this Polish government.

The second thing that struck me was the speech he gave that Paula just referred to. On the one hand, had many elements of the traditional transatlantic speech, reaffirming U.S. commitment to the Article 5, the collective defense piece of the NATO alliance, his support for strong transatlantic relationship.

But then on the other hand, you had a dark view of a clash of civilizations and you had it on your opening clip, the president’s comment about the West and our ability to stand up to this challenge. And I think some people are wondering how we in the U.S. under President Trump are defining that West.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, how do you respond to that, Paula Dobriansky? Because it did raise, I think, questions in people’s minds about what is this conflict as the president sees it?

KAREN DOBRIANSKY: Well, first, I think that Karen was right, the president did highlight the importance over decades of the Polish relationship with the United States and even cited the roles of such generals, Kosciuszko and Pilsudski. So, our relationship has mattered greatly.

I saw it in a broader context, though, than Karen had expressed. I saw it as a bond. And on the other issue, I saw and looked at the words that he enunciated. He really spoke a great deal to freedom, to liberty, to captive nations, he referred to in his remarks.

He did talk about the importance of values and even towards the end of the speech expressed how it’s not just only about military might, but it is also about the will — the will of the people and, towards that end, I did not see that as a dark. I saw that as underscoring the kind of values that we do hold very dearly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if he was stressing the common values, Karen Donfried, how then do you read what the president has said? Because we know it was on his other trip to Europe where he withheld a statement about so-called Article 5, the mutual commitment to defense among the NATO countries, but this time he did. I mean, how do you square that?

KAREN DONFRIED: So, on the one hand, I don’t think we would have been so focused on the more traditional aspects of the speech were it not to the earlier trip to Europe for a NATO leaders meeting where the president did not affirm U.S. support for Article 5. That’s why it was significant. But in that transatlantic context, it was also significant that he didn’t mention the European Union because typically, the U.S. has defined its relationship with Europe both through NATO, but also through U.S. cooperation with this body that emphasizes cooperation among Europeans.

The second piece I would mention is, I was struck by the focus on values but I actually searched the speech for the word democracy, and it didn’t appear and that was striking to me. And though he did talk about the importance of rule of law and freedom of press in the speech, when you looked at the press conference he gave with President Duda, he was asked about the issue of the press and said — expressed his concern about fake news and the dishonest media. So, it was a bit of a mixed message I thought on those issues around democratic principles.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Paula Dobriansky, what about that? I mean, we know the president’s view toward the press in the United States has certainly been a subject of controversy and a lot of discussion and debate recently.

KAREN DOBRIANSKY: Well, I think, in the speech, which was his primary platform, in my view, not the press conference but the primary platform where he had an opportunity not just to speak to Poland but, as I mentioned, to the region at large, and also to set the foundation for his meetings coming up in Hamburg and particularly with President Putin where he did underscore this importance, as I said, of communism. He talked about it, about the freedoms that were deprived, the kind of oppression that this region was under and how, in terms of the present time, this is a different period. This is a period where we do have to reaffirm these kinds of values.

So, I saw it in a broader strategic sense of setting a foundation that has applicability to a number of the issues that we’ve just mentioned, not just Poland, the region at large, but also for Russia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Karen Donfried, just about 30 seconds here. But how does all this play into expectation for tomorrow’s meeting between President Trump and President Putin?

KAREN DONFRIED: So, it becomes much more complicated for President Trump when he gets — well, he is now in Germany for the G20. The Germany context is more complicated, because you have a German chancellor who’s facing reelection campaign in September. She has a public that is not supportive of President Trump’s policies. She very much values the relationship with the U.S., so she wants to try to reach an agreement with President Trump while also staying true to her principle stands on climate and trade. So, it will become very challenging.

The meeting with President Putin will be something everyone will be watching and it sounds, based on his comments to the press conference today, that he won’t be raising the issue of Russian meddling in U.S. elections.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes. He certainly — he said, yes, it may have happened but it may not have. He said nobody knows for sure who was behind it.

KAREN DONFRIED: Which was also a rebuke of U.S. intelligence, I would say.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Karen Donfried, Paula Dobriansky, we thank you both.

KAREN DONFRIED: Thank you so much.

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