Germany’s Defensive Defense: Minister von der Leyen’s First Trip to Washington

Germany’s President Joachim Gauck knows his job. He defined it himself, and the President acts through words. They may be uncomfortable words sometimes. Gauck clearly sees his version of the bully pulpit in his presidential platform—and he is good at using it. After all, he was a preacher in his earlier years, especially during the turbulent period of the end of East Germany. Furthermore, he managed the beginning of the difficult process of coming to grips with the East German past as the first Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives.

Now the President is taking on a new challenge, admonishing Germans to accept more responsibility on the international stage in shaping efforts at conflict prevention. In a recent radio interview, he went a step further, saying that there are occasions when the use of force is necessary to stop violations of human rights, war crimes, and crimes against humanity: “As a last resort, sometimes it’s necessary to fight off acts of aggression together with others.”

Yet the President is not the Chancellor, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, or the Minister of Defense. He can spark debate and discussion—but he cannot decide policy.

So when the actual application of the President’s words have to transfer from theory into policy practice, it is the political leaders who carry that responsibility and also have to persuade the country that it is the right course for Germany.

Right now there multiple fires burning around the globe, and like any other country, Germany must decide not only where to engage and extinguish them, but also where not to engage.

President Gauck has been encouraging a hesitant German public to engage. But what about the one member of Chancellor Merkel’s cabinet who is in charge of the military side of engagement: Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen? As she is visiting Washington this week, it would be a good opportunity to ask her about her thoughts concerning what Germany is doing or should be doing in Ukraine, within NATO, on Afghanistan, in Syria, and elsewhere. The list is long.

Only a few weeks after becoming Germany’s first female defense minister, von der Leyen delivered her first public address to the international community at the Munich Security Conference this past January. She clearly echoed the words of President Gauck, underlining the fact that Germany has both interests in and responsibilities for securing peace and preventing conflict on the global stage.

A few months later, after Russia had annexed Crimea, the Minister argued for German military support in those countries bordering Russia to signal German solidarity. She was immediately attacked for allegedly raising tensions with Moscow and accused on social media of war mongering. While German public opinion is in large measure opposed to military options in dealing with the crisis in Ukraine, Germany has over four thousand troops engaged worldwide in peace-keeping operations, including more than a decade of engagement in Afghanistan. Von der Leyen also points to assistance in Mali and in dealing with the extraction of chemical weapons in Syria.

That said, Germany’s military capacities are not growing. Its military expenditures are set at 1.3 percent of the federal budget, below average among NATO allies. More cuts are planned in future budgets. As the third largest exporter of military equipment, the largest economy in Europe could be expected to do more. But the political support for that is not present even within the Chancellor’s own coalition. Von der Leyen defends her budget by saying it is not about how much we spend but how we spend our resources. The fact is, budget cuts continue throughout NATO and the sum is not always more than its parts. The stark defense commitment asymmetry in the alliance remains a sore spot among its members.

Von der Leyen emphasizes Germany’s commitment to what is called networked security, involving efforts to link its various defense dimensions together and with other partners. That remains a work in progress at the European level and within Germany itself, given the continuing low level of investment in defense infrastructure.

Von der Leyen has a tough job. She faces a public that is not enthusiastic about the military as a tool of foreign policy, despite the exhortations of its President. While the actions by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine have generated negative reactions in Germany, there is still a substantial presence of people who offer their “understanding” for his aggression—and not just in Ukraine. In fact, there are those who even voice admiration for Putin’s criticism of Europe and of the United States for “provoking” Russia—while favoring his crack-down on human rights as well.

But even beyond the current crisis, von der Leyen faces the need to persuade her skeptical public about the necessity of German responsibilities that go with its global role. Twenty-five years after German unification, Germany is in a slow process of learning that lesson.

References to the support Germany received when it was divided suggest that the commitment made to the Federal Republic by its allies ought to be the benchmark for today’s Germany. Even though von der Leyen’s initial suggestion to strengthen NATO forces in Eastern Europe was heavily criticized as provocative, the fact is that the American, British, and French brigades in West Berlin stood for decades as trip wires against a massive Soviet military force. That presence was not a question of the quantity of forces; it was a signal of commitment.

Von der Leyen has to know that the last defense minister who became chancellor was Helmut Schmidt. In his time at the height of the Cold War, Schmidt commanded a much larger military force. Later, when he became chancellor, Schmidt faced a huge challenge in mobilizing German public opinion behind the need to counter the Soviet Union’s strategic military steps in Europe—a challenge that eventually was part of the reason he lost his job in 1982.  Finally it was left to Helmut Kohl to continue that task.

In Washington, Minister von der Leyen will face some tough questions about Germany’s key role in dealing with an unpredictable Vladimir Putin. Also under review will be the Grand Coalition’s readiness to put policies into play to remind him that Germany is willing to make some sacrifices to confront Russian ambitions, which may not end in Crimea. Those policies may take the form of sanctions, but should also consist of commitments to an alliance that continues to stand by Germany. There is no other European player that has the same capacity to convey that message, if it chooses to do so.

If Ursula von der Leyen wants to be the second defense minister to possibly become chancellor, she needs to help Germany make that choice.


Further Reading

German Defense Minister: ‘We Can’t Look Away’ (Spiegel ONLINE): Taking place just after her appointment and speech at the Munich Security Conference, this interview with Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen reinforces German commitments to a greater level of participation in international security.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Jackson Janes

President of AICGS

Jackson Janes is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics from 2005-2010.

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Atlantic Council of the United States. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee , Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS), the Robert Bosch Foundation Alumni Association, and the American Bundestag Intern Network (ABIN) in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Board of the German American Fulbright Commission and serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is a member of the Cosmos Club in Washington DC.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.