Heather Conley: ‘Europe should prepare itself for Trump’s return as it would for a storm’

The head of the U.S. think tank GMF calls for a new generation of leaders in Israel and Palestine and calls Western doubts over aid to Ukraine ‘myopic’

Heather Conley
Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund, on January 16 at a hotel in Madrid’s Centro neighborhood.Andrea Comas
Luis Doncel

In the face of growing challenges around the world, Heather Conley calls for a modicum of optimism. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning,” jokes the president of U.S. think tank German Marshall Fund (GMF). On a visit to Madrid, the former high-ranking government official from the United States, who left her public post to work in analysis, focuses her words on the importance of improving transatlantic relations, a link that is imperiled by the looming threat of Donald Trump’s return after the November election. Conley also warns of the very negative consequences a Vladimir Putin victory in Ukraine could have for the West.

The results of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary left the prospect of Trump as the Republican Party’s candidate almost inevitable. The idea of seeing him back in the White House no longer seems at all far-fetched. Conley insists that, unlike in 2016, no one would be able to call his victory a surprise. As such, she’s warning Europe to be prepared. “I know this is going to be very difficult. I think we just have to work harder at strengthening the relationship. It’s like preparing for a storm. You have to do everything you can to prepare for it.”

A fundamental step, in her eyes, would be for Europe to increase defense spending and boost its self-sufficiency when it comes to security. But how to achieve something in just over nine months that hasn’t been accomplished in decades? “When you’re a student, you can’t prepare for an exam the last few hours, you have to be doing it very consistently,” Conley says. She insists that Europe would not be strengthening its security to please the United States, but rather, due to its own necessity. “We see it now with the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. It is a very unstable world, these are efforts for the common good.”

And there’s another idea on which this expert on Russia and central Europe insists. She advocates for rising above the model in which U.S.-European relations depend almost entirely on the person occupying the White House. “The relationship is about the people and the citizens and making sure that our European friends don’t make this relationship just about the White House or Washington, but rather, citizens across the country.”

Heather Conley, during the interview in Madrid.
Heather Conley, during the interview in Madrid.Andrea Comas

Does she think that Trump is a risk to democracy? Conley prefers to use more moderate language, noting that the intent made by the former president at not recognizing his opponent’s victory “was very deeply destabilizing.”

The shock of the war in Ukraine resonated very differently in Europe, where the crisis has the potential for more serious destabilization than in the United States. Something similar is taking place when it comes to the conflict in the Middle East. But Conley does not share the view that these crises have exacerbated tension between the two sides of the Atlantic. “When I came to Ukraine, there was great alignment. Tragically, there is now alignment in the fatigue of supporting Kyiv. You’re hearing the lessons of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and hearing more and more caution both from Washington and European capitals, while at the same time acknowledging Israel’s right to defend itself. And unfortunately, neither the United States or Europe are able to change the course of the war,” she says. In contrast, she does recognize a lack of alignment when it comes to issues like trade — “The tariffs that the Trump administration had placed, I always think it’s a missed opportunity not to resolve those” — and different points of view on China.

2024 is not just any year. From January to December, more than half the world’s population will be called upon to vote. In this massive electoral year, Conley thinks that the biggest danger to advanced democracies comes from within the system itself. “The biggest challenge to European and U.S. elections is that citizens just simply lose faith in their own democracy.” That’s not the case in Russia, which will hold elections in March that it hopes will legitimize it as a democracy. “Which it is not,” she points out.

She nods when she hears talk of the profound impact that images of death in Gaza are having on Western societies, awakening accusations of double standards on the part of the United States and European Union. But she prefers not to speak of loss of trust. She does consider it “absolutely imperative to protect civilian lives now” and that international humanitarian law be implemented. “I think the only way we get to new solutions is with new leaders, in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority. Leaders who have courage and a new vision.”

We’re nearly two years into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Western aid to Kyiv is faltering, in the United States due to Republican reluctance, and in Europe, because of the wrench that leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have thrown into the works. This is one of the topics that most concerns Conley, who calls these policies “myopic”. “We’ve all lost sight of what it would mean if Russia wins, the enormous amount of instability that would be created, and the effect it would have on countries like Iran, North Korea and China. It’s very frustrating. I have some important tasks in the coming weeks to insist on the importance of that aid.”

The head of GMF is critical of the strategy of gradually providing weapons, a policy that she credits to Western fear of Russian escalation. “If they had been delivered faster, Ukraine would have gained a great advantage over Russia. We lost a moment, and now we are going to pay a very, very high price for it,” she says, bluntly. Moreover, she denies that the moment is approaching in which Ukraine will be forced to accept a peace agreement that includes painful concessions. “I don’t know whether President Zelenskiy would want to be the leader to sign such an agreement. I think we’re far from that right now.”

The West’s goal, she says, is to strengthen Ukraine’s position when it comes time to sit down to dialogue. “There was never a negotiating table to arrive at. Ukraine is fighting for its survival. There’s no negotiating your survival. The [Russian] occupation just means death,” she concludes.

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