German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen walks with Afghan Maj. Gen. Zalmai Wesa during a visit to CAmp Shaheen, on Dec. 13, 2014.

German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen walks with Afghan Maj. Gen. Zalmai Wesa during a visit to CAmp Shaheen, on Dec. 13, 2014. John MacDougall/AP

Meet Europe’s Rising Defense Stars

Below the radar, a new generation of female European leaders is offering bold ideas on defense and taking political risks.

Sitting in Washington, it is often too easy to look across the Atlantic and think there is no one serious about defense. European leaders are preoccupied with internal questions like the future of the European Union. Their publics remain skeptical of using military force. And despite years of stern warnings by U.S. defense leaders about the capabilities gap between the U.S. and Europe and demands that Europeans boost defense investments, most countries still spend less.

But it would be a mistake to belittle the defense debate in Europe – in fact, recently a new generation of European defense leaders has emerged. They are offering bold defense ideas and willing to take political risks. Although they don’t represent a new consensus yet, they are injecting fresh dynamism and creativity into the Transatlantic security alliance. Watching and listening to them, one can envision a different future.

One such leader is Norway’s Defense Minister, Ine Eriksen Soreide. In office since 2013, she has quickly established herself as one of NATO’s rising young (age 38) stars. She is well respected in Washington’s defense circles in and out of government and has pushed Norway to spend more on defense, hold tough against Russia and stay engaged in the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Last week in Oslo at a conference of American and European security experts, Soreide warned that even if Moscow backs down from its actions in Ukraine today, Russia will pose a problem for years to come, compelling Europeans to adapt and maintain a strong defense. “We must take the situation as it is,” she said, in a speech, “not as we wish it to be.”

And while an aggressive Russia is a central challenge for a country like Norway on NATO’s northern flank, Soreide also stressed the importance of fighting ISIS, which she rightly described as a “severe terrorist threat to all democracies.”

Norway is putting actions behind its minister’s words. The Norwegian military has been one of the most active in responding to Russia’s provocations. Last year its troops deployed with U.S. soldiers to Latvia for training and exercises and it will contribute to the Baltic Air Policing mission. In Iraq, Norway will deploy trainers and headquarters officers to help bolster the coalition effort there. And even further afield, last year for first time Norway contributed an Aegis frigate to the Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, maritime exercise off Hawaii .Soreide had championed Norway’s participation to show that Pacific security was a common Transatlantic interest and that the U.S. “rebalancing” strategy need not come at the expense of Europe.

Norway is putting actions behind its minister’s words. 

Another defense leader to watch is Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen. Relatively new to the defense world – she had previously led the Ministries of Labor and Family Affairs – von der Leyen has emerged as a formidable voice inside European security debates and as a favorite among American officials. She is close to Merkel and is widely seen as someone who may succeed the chancellor in the future.

Von der Leyen has worked to turn a Germany wary of assertive leadership into a more activist one. Last summer she was instrumental in Berlin’s decision to resupply the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters with lethal assistance – a significant step given Germany’s long-standing practice of not supplying weapons to conflict zones (hence its opposition to sending arms to Ukraine) and its reluctance to get anywhere near Middle East conflicts (recall that Germany split with its NATO allies over Libya and did not join the 2011 air campaign). She has also worked to maintain Germany’s leadership in northern Afghanistan. 

To be sure, the German military still has huge challenges. It has suffered embarrassing setbacks like transport planes breaking down and reports of equipment shortages that forced German troops to train with broomsticks during a NATO exercise. So the arguably tougher task will be getting Germany to invest in capabilities and spend on defense. 

Von der Leyen has made some progress. She has worked to entice more young Germans to join the military by making it a more attractive (and family-friendly) profession and has labored to reverse the trend in German defense spending. Last weekend, she was the headliner at the annual Brussels Forum, where she announced that Germany will increase its defense budget by 8 billion Euros over the next 5 years, or 6.2 percent. Significantly, opinion polls show that the German public supports this increase, although Germany will still remain below the NATO goal of spending 2 percent of GDP annually on defense.

By outlook, energy and accomplishment, Soreide and von der Leyen have so far shown what European leaders can do on defense. And as women, they stand out in the staid (and male-dominated) hallways of NATO. Watching them up close, they exude leadership and command attention; and when working with them, they are problem-solvers. In fact, right now the NATO alliance has an impressive group of five female defense ministers (in addition to Germany and Norway, they are from Italy, Albania, and the Netherlands) who are making their mark.

In a recent interview with CNN, Norway’s Soreide acknowledged how being in this small club makes a difference. Describing an initiative she put together recently with von der Leyen and their Dutch counterpart to road-test a rapidly deployable NATO force, she said “I have to say that being three female ministers of defense…we put it together quickly and I think much more quickly than some of our male colleagues maybe would have done – because we want to see results and we want to see them quickly.”

Quick results are exactly what the transatlantic alliance needs more of.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.