Newly sworn in U.S. President Donald Trump left Europe wondering about his commitment to the traditional trans-Atlantic ties after a rather harsh inaugural address on Friday.
Ursula von der Leyen, German defense minister and one of the most powerful politicians in Germany’s governing center-right Christian Democratic party, sat down with Handelsblatt to discuss the prospects for NATO under Mr. Trump, her new U.S. counterpart James Mattis, the potential change in the West’s relations to Russia, and what Europe needs to do to get a hold on the refugee crisis.
Since she spent four years living in California in the 1990s, Ms. von der Leyen knows the United States and the American mindset better than many of her colleagues.
Handelsblatt: Ms. von der Leyen, Mr. Trump’s inauguration speech was rather cold, foreshadowing a course of U.S. isolationism. Where did you listen to his speech, and what was your reaction?
Ursula von der Leyen: I had meetings on Friday evening. I only learned about Mr. Trump’s speech on my way back. They were harsh words, not only for the world community but also for the former presidents who were present. They were elected by the people just like he is. If you want to make far-reaching changes the way Mr. Trump does, you need allies.
Is this the end of the trans-Atlantic friendship?
No. The tone will be rougher, but Europe’s longstanding relations to America are strong – economically, politically and culturally. The millions of friendships spanning the Atlantic will prevail and carry our many shared values and shared interests worldwide.
Mr. Trump also said that the United States doesn’t want to stand up for its allies militarily anymore if they don’t pay. Can NATO, the alliance Mr. Trump called “obsolete,” still rely on its most important partner?
It’s normal that a new government announces wanting to do everything differently from its predecessor. The U.S. president, however, has great responsibility for peace in the world. And “obsolete” can mean no longer needed, or in need of an overhaul. We agree with the latter, and have been modernizing NATO quite a bit for the past three years, but we’re not starting from scratch with that. Europe of course has to do more.
Are you expecting Mr. Trump to send the bill for the NATO operation on the eastern border of the Baltics and Poland, or to immediately call back the U.S. troops that just arrived in Poland?
We shouldn’t speculate but make our own standpoint clear. My new colleague, Defense Secretary James Mattis, took a clear pro-NATO stand in all his hearings. He very sensibly said that no nation is safe without friends. Of course the burden has to be shared fairly, but trust cannot be bought. I already congratulated Mr. Mattis on Friday by mail on his appointment. During the NATO defense minister summit and the Munich security conference in mid-February at the latest we’ll have the chance to chat in person. I’m looking forward to that.
European development aid, economy, police and military need to coordinate their work with African states so that security and economic development go hand in hand.
Do European Union countries need to up their game quickly now in order to reach the NATO target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense?
What matters is the clear political commitment to move toward the 2 percent. We already hiked defense spending considerably last year. But massively upping expenditures and meaningfully investing them doesn’t work from one day to the next. Ships, helicopters, armored vehicles, personnel – even if the money’s available, you still first need to build or recruit and train. But for us Europeans, readjusting our security policy isn’t only about NATO.
What else is it about?
As Europeans, we have to take responsibility for the security of our region, no one will do that for us. Looking at neighboring Africa that means together with the African states we need to reconcile their population growth with economic growth, and stabilize them against terrorism. That’s in our own best interest.
In order to secure the European Union’s external borders against the millions of refugees flowing in?
In order for people to find work and security close at home or close to home, and so they don’t have to hand their lives over to traffickers. Cooperating with Africa is not a task for NATO. That’s our obligation as Europeans.
Are you worried that the new U.S. president is looking to have a very different relation with Russia than his predecessor Barack Obama?
We don’t know what stand the new U.S. administration will actually take. What’s important is that we Europeans take our stand: respecting other countries’ sovereignty and borders is essential for peaceful coexistence. That’s why the Minsk agreement, which Russia has agreed to, is binding. That means the sanctions against Russia can end immediately if the Minsk agreement for Ukraine is implemented.
But Mr. Trump wants to end sanctions faster and made Russia reducing its nuclear arsenal the new condition for that.
It’s always good to seek the dialog with Russia, but we shouldn’t forget where we’re coming from. Ukraine has already been duped once on this question: the country gave up its nuclear weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union in exchange for Russia guaranteeing its borders. The Russian annexation of Crimea broke that promise. I know many Republicans in Congress and the Senate that have a very clear opinion on Russia and want international law to work. That’s why it’ll be interesting to see who’ll get their way in the American government.
Traditionally, the United States plays a major role in the Middle East. Do you expect the country to reduce its commitment under Mr. Trump?
No, the new American president called the fight against terrorism one of his top priorities. In the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, Americans together with many other nations have chosen the right approach over the past two years: forging broad alliances, strategic patience to train local forces and support them in liberating their regions from ISIS. It was also smart to invest immediately in construction of the liberated areas so that people can feel the difference from the terrorists. ISIS lost almost all of the territory it had gained in Iraq. I hope that we’ll stay on this prudent and promising path.
It looks like Bashar al-Assad is winning the civil war in Syria, thanks to Russia’s support. What options do Europeans still have to end the bloodshed?
These past years in Syria have made it brutally clear that peace is only possible when every group except the terrorists is involved. Russia, together with Iran, Turkey and the Syrian regime, hasn’t managed yet to establish lasting peace. That shows that all stakeholders need to sit at the table. And Europe with its strengths in diplomacy and its own historic experiences in the region can play a mediating role. Syria shows how important international institutions like the United Nations are.
Despite the UN’s weakness particularly in Syria?
Yes. Of course, the struggle for peace in Syria is a long story of disappointments and failures. But still: if peace is to be sustainable, there’s no other way than to negotiate it with all domestic groups, the regional powers as well as Russia, neighboring Europe and the United States. At the end of the day, the United Nations is our only option as a platform for balancing all these different interests.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble once said globalization brought terrorism home to us too. The attack on a Berlin Christmas market just before last Christmas is one example of that. How can we better protect ourselves against attacks?
External and domestic security are the most pressing issues currently. The big-picture problem here is that Europe is suffering from the fact that it has incomplete structures. We wouldn’t have witnessed these massive numbers of refugees by last February if free movement within the union would have actually been coupled with effective protection of the external borders and a joint European asylum system, as agreed upon. This failure is what made the crisis possible in the first place.
Are our external borders better protected now?
Europe usually works better when it is facing a crisis. The number of refugees arriving in Germany last year dropped to less than one third of the number of 2015. But we as a continent will have to keep dealing with the topic of migration and have to act accordingly.
Do you really think that the influx of refugees will stop, considering the living conditions in the Middle East and Africa?
The past two years taught us that we can curb migration by tackling the causes. In the Aegean, we managed to almost entirely stop trafficking. A year ago, almost 5,000 people were smuggled daily across the sea to Europe there. Today, it’s only 30 to 50.
How long will it take to stabilize Africa? It is still ongoing in Afghanistan.
Yes, it’s been 15 years in Afghanistan, 19 in Kosovo.
And the German parliament just approved and extension for the Germany army’s commitment in Mali.
Yes, but you have to remember that it’s also taken years for a country to fall apart. Then you need years to rebuild it too. I don’t mind the investment, because everything is better than what we saw in 2015. Instead of deporting people who came to Europe illegally at great effort and expense, it’s better to invest in their home countries so that they can build a life there.
Isn’t Germany stretching itself too thin getting involved in so many places at the same time?
We won’t be able to handle it all on our own, but only together with the European Union.
Are the other member countries willing to support that?
Last year taught all of us the bitter lesson of what happens if we don’t proactively cooperate. Even in countries hosting few refugees, there’s the realization that protecting our external borders and cooperating with the countries of origin is a long-term task. That’s why we’re promoting the European Security Union. European development aid organizations, industry, police and military need to coordinate their work with African states so that security and economic development go hand in hand. We’re developing pragmatic skills, like mobile clinics or hubs for airlifts that are needed in all these operations.