Women Drive Germany’s Foreign Policy Shift Amid Ukraine War

BERLIN — It was Chancellor Olaf Scholz who, three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, broke with Germany’s postwar pacifism, vowing to give his country the necessary resources and muscle to lead on security matters in Europe.

Those now tasked with carrying out that change — the biggest foreign-policy shift in Germany since World War II — are women.

Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, who is in Washington this week, is overseeing a rearmament program of 100 billion euros, about $110 billion, for the German military. Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister, is devising Germany’s first national security strategy. And Nancy Faeser, in charge of homeland security, is organizing the welcome for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees.

As war rages in Ukraine, a mere 10-hour drive from Berlin, it is the first time that Germany has all three national security positions filled by women, putting them on the frontline of both a cultural and a strategic revolution in their country.

Christoph Heusgen, a veteran German diplomat who was Ms. Merkel’s national security adviser for 12 years, summed up his former boss’s secret of success in foreign policy and security matters: “No vanity, no testosterone.”

But unlike Mr. Scholz, a Social Democrat, Ms. Merkel never achieved gender parity in her government. Only now, a quarter-century after Madeleine K. Albright, who died last week at 84, became America’s first female secretary of state, does Germany have its first female foreign minister and its first female interior minister. (There have been two female defense ministers already.)

Some spy an analogy to the foreign-policy shift, which had for so long eluded the traditionally more pro-military Christian Democrats of Ms. Merkel. Just like it took a male chancellor to achieve gender parity in government, it took a progressive government to announce €100 billion to revamp the German military, said Roderich Kiesewetter, a conservative lawmaker and former soldier.

Had his own party announced this, “the result would have been turmoil, public unrest, demonstrations — the whole so-called peace movement would call us warmongers,” Mr. Kiesewetter said.

Instead, it falls to Ms. Lambrecht, a onetime supporter of that peace movement who joined Mr. Scholz’s Social Democrats in the 1980s when she marched against nuclear power and in favor of disarmament, to buy armed drones and a new generation of fighter jets that can drop nuclear bombs.

Ms. Lambrecht, a 56-year-old former justice minister who is considered to be on the left of her party and has no previous experience of the military, in many ways personifies the far-reaching change in the German mind-set since Russia attacked Ukraine in February.

Before the war started, Ms. Lambrecht spoke for many Social Democrats when she insisted “not to draw” the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany “into the Ukraine conflict.” She defended Germany’s ban on arms shipments into conflict zones, offering Ukraine 5,000 helmets and a field hospital instead.

Now, she proudly describes Germany as one of the biggest supplier of arms to Ukraine and defends plans to raise military spending to beyond 2 percent of gross domestic product.

“We have to say goodbye to the idea that we live in a peaceful Europe,” Ms. Lambrecht said in a recent interview. “The threats are coming closer — they have come closer. The idea that there are borders that are accepted by all, that’s over. We saw how Putin is trampling all over international law.”

She is candid about her own — and her country’s — belated pivot, something that observers say gives her credibility with those who still need convincing.

“If I’m honest, I could not have imagined it before this brutal offensive war,” she said. “There is a before and an after.”

When Ms. Lambrecht meets President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan; Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III; and members of Congress in Washington this week, she has one message for them: “We stand by our allies’ side and are conscious of the responsibility that we must and want to take on in this alliance. We are not just talking, but taking concrete measures.”

One of those measures is to develop a national security strategy, Germany’s first, and the woman in charge of it is the foreign minister, Ms. Baerbock. Hawkish on Russia, she is determined to enshrine the current consensus on a more muscular and values-based foreign policy into a doctrine that endures.

This consensus is fragile, she noted.

“If there hadn’t been the war, some of these decisions may never have been taken,” she said. “I want to make sure that we won’t forget in four months or even in four years why we made some of these decisions.”

For Ms. Baerbock, a member of the Green Party, it is not just a policy shift. It is a shift in how Germany sees and defines itself, no longer hiding behind its history but actively trying to shape the future.

It’s good to know history, but we cannot formulate the future only with the past,” she said. “As Germans, we have a special responsibility, but we have to work for the future.”

At 41, Ms. Baerbock represents a new generation in German politics, one that came of age after the Berlin Wall fell. Like others in her generation, she is not afraid to talk about “leading” or “führen” — long a taboo in a Germany traumatized by the memory of its onetime Führer, Hitler.

As a mother of two young children, Ms. Baerbock has personalized and humanized war diplomacy almost every day, always with an eye toward the future.

“I grew up in a united European Union at peace, and as a western German it’s my responsibility to ensure the same for my children and grandchildren,” she said. “I actually have the responsibility to lead so that other generations in neighboring countries can also live in peace. And this is a change in identity.”

Openly advocating a “feminist foreign policy,” Ms. Baerbock described her arrival as “a culture shock” for Germany’s male-dominated security community, something she shares with Nancy Faeser, the interior minister.

“It should be normal in the year 2022 that women are heading security agencies,” Ms. Faeser said in an interview. “It’s an important and good signal for Germany.”

And long overdue, some officials in her ministry add privately. In 2018, Ms. Faeser’s predecessor appointed only men to eight junior minister posts. The photograph of the nine men caused such an outcry that the ministry had to take it off the website at the time.

A more gender-balanced lens on security is not just a question of fairness but good policy, said Ms. Faeser, who is managing the arrival of some 250,000 refugees from Ukraine — a number expected eventually to exceed the 1.2 million who came from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in 2015 and 2016.

“One priority is taking care of young women and children,” Ms. Faeser said. “Many of these women and children are traumatized not just from war but because they had to leave behind their husbands, fathers and sons. They need special care. Because so many women are coming alone, we are particularly vigilant.”

Ms. Faeser has increased the number of police officers at train stations where refugees arrive to guard against human traffickers and sexual predators.

When she is not planning how to welcome refugees or promoting a joint system of registering and distributing them between the 27 E.U. countries, Ms. Faeser’s job also includes keeping watch on critical infrastructure at risk from Russian cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. Germany has a sizable Russian-German community.

“Ever since the illegal war started, we have seen Russian disinformation campaigns peddling the narrative that Ukraine has to be liberated,” Ms. Faeser said.

One of the most dramatic cases of fake news meant to stir Russian sympathy was a homemade video showing a woman recounting in tears how a Russian teenager had been beaten to death by Ukrainian refugees.

“The video was fake, that is confirmed,” Ms. Faeser said. An expert in the issues of far-right extremism and far-right terrorism, she is no stranger to online propaganda and incitement to hatred.

Ms. Faeser has so far been largely spared the sexist commentary her fellow female ministers have received. Ms. Baerbock, who ran as the Green candidate for chancellor before joining Mr. Scholz’s government in a coalition, was the target of several online disinformation campaigns, some of them orchestrated from Russian accounts.

But with the revival of Germany’s military now in the headlines, it is Ms. Lambrecht, the defense minister, who has become the primary target.

“Does this minister know how to do war?” Germany’s best-selling tabloid, Bild, recently asked.

For now, Ms. Lambrecht takes the criticism lightly. “Honestly, I’m pretty busy and don’t have time to think about why some things are written about me,” she said before boarding her plane to Washington. “My job is to make the military significantly better. Judge me at the end.”

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