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.