Surprise out of Germany

David Wise

David W. Wise, a retired businessman, is a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (London).

Although Chancellor Angela Merkel’s selection of the previous Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, Ursula von der Leyen, as Minister of Defense last month was a huge surprise—especially to her predecessor—the energy and boldness von der Leyen has exhibited in the first month holding that portfolio has not been. Von der Leyen, the first woman to head the defense ministry in Germany, now leads a military organization that has just one female among the nation’s two hundred highest ranking officers. The new minister wasted no time in making her first trip to visit German troops in Afghanistan and to affirm her commitment both to their safety and to the ongoing support of stability in Afghanistan after combat troops are withdrawn.

The choice of von der Leyen for this post was as dramatic as it was unexpected. While it was clear that she would have to vacate the Labor portfolio as control of that particular ministry was one of the key demands by the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) as part of the coalition agreement necessary for Merkel’s election to a third term, it was widely believed that von der Leyen, who is a gynecologist by training, would become Minister of Health. Although trilingual and having studied and lived abroad, the new defense minister had no prior experience in either foreign affairs or national security. In addition to the logic of such an appointment, some viewed a placement in a second line ministry as consistent with the chancellor’s past practice of neutralizing potential rival voices inside her own party. Von der Leyen enjoys very high popularity and several months prior to the recent election had a very public disagreement over policy with the chancellor, who is known for ruling with a firm hand.

The immediate reaction to the appointment, however, beyond surprise, has been the view that in making this selection Merkel was tapping her successor, as she has been quite clear that she will not serve beyond 2017. On its face, the selection of von der Leyen does seem to make her one of the clear winners of the coalition negotiations and virtual heir apparent. As an example, the first woman to serve as defense minister of a NATO country, Kim Campbell, went on to serve briefly as Prime Minister of Canada. Like Campbell, von der Leyen also studied at the London School of Economics before switching course and attending medical school. Unlike Campbell, von der Leyen is a much stronger political force.

On the other hand, those who ascribe more cynical motivations to the very crafty chancellor see more of a test by fire presented to her protégé and rival. Seven of the sixteen German defense ministers in the history of the Federal Republic have had to resign, including the first three defense ministers to serve under Chancellor Merkel. The first Merkel appointment, Franz Josef Jung, resigned after allegations of a cover-up in the deaths of German soldiers in the Kunduz air strike in Afghanistan. The second, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, resigned when it was discovered that he had plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation. The most recent, Thomas de Mazière, had suffered a series of missteps—most notably the botched and wasteful procurement of Euro Hawk drones. Although a close ally of the chancellor’s, de Mazière had badly disappointed Merkel and in her characteristic fashion, she withdrew her support for him to remain in this vital post. That opening and the need to find someone more politically astute than the three predecessors lead to von der Leyen, who, in spite of a lack of subject matter expertise, is driven, extremely disciplined, and a political animal. If the new minister succeeds, the chancellor will have escaped continued embarrassment in her appointments to the post. If not—well—so much for another rival. Then, too, having a strong person in this particular post also serves as a counterweight to the SPD’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Merkel’s main opponent in the 2008 election, who is the new foreign minister.

In divining what all this means for German defense policy, all one can do now is speculate. Von der Leyen is extremely pro-Europe—so much so that she quite vocally supports a federal political union of European states modeled on either the Swiss Federation or the United States. From this, it would not be at all a stretch to surmise that von der Leyen will support the creation of a more integrated European military force. Such a force might enable Europe to participate more capably in operations beyond its borders, but this change could also lessen the cohesion or importance of NATO. An early sign of this may be found in the January 14 announcement that German soldiers will be sent to Mali as part of the European Union training mission. As labor minister, von der Leyen championed legal quotas for women on boards of directors, paternal leave for new fathers, and was a supporter of increased training and the trans-European apprenticeship program (ERASMUS). These policy preferences would seem consistent with a tenure aimed at increasing the opportunities of females in the military and for innovative training and family-friendly policies as Germany withdraws its contingent of troops from Afghanistan and as the country completes its transition from a conscripted to an all-volunteer force.

In one of her earliest pronouncements the new minister enunciated the objective “to make the Bundeswehr one of the most attractive employers in Germany” and backed it up by calling for more child care and part time work opportunities as well as changes in the rotation and deployment policies so as to be less disruptive to families. Surprisingly, these progressive social policies were criticized in public from the left by two SPD members of the new cabinet as well as by Greens and far left Die Linke, which is now the leading party in opposition. Since pushing for more progressive social policies had been the main tension in the recent protracted coalition discussions, such criticism coming from the new SPD labor and family ministers was not only unexpected but possibly a harbinger of tensions in the new government.

In dealing with the messy procurement and cost overrun fiascoes of her predecessors, the new minister can be counted on to use her steely determination to bring these problems under control. In a bold rebuttal to Anne Marie Slaughter, von der Leyen seems to be able to have it all under control having juggled an economics degree, medical school, a successful marriage, and being mother to seven children (aged 13-25) with a political career that in the space of just thirteen years has taken her from her first political office to the doorstep of the Kanzleramt.

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