Ministers of peace, not war: How women at top of European military machines are changing the game

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen talking with German soldiers during a visit of the German Armed Forces Bundeswehr at the air base in Incirlik, Turkey.

At Thursday’s meeting of European Union defense ministers all five of the bloc’s biggest economies (minus the U.K.) were represented by women — a coup completed by the fresh appointment of Sylvie Goulard as the defence chief in French President Emmanuel Macron’s government. This remarkable evolution of what was a traditionally male portfolio reflects the current European attitude toward military force and its raison d’etre.

The five women at the table on Thursday included Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, France’s Goulard, Italy’s Roberta Pinotti, Spain’s Maria Dolores de Cospedal and the Netherlands Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert. Not one of them has any kind of military background. Von der Leyen is a doctor by training whose first political appointments were in the traditionally “female” area of social policy. Goulard and Hennis-Plasschaert are both former European Parliament members whose previous work centered on EU integration. Pinotti has a degree in literature and a history of far-left politics. Cospedal is a career diplomat. They’re political appointees — but it’s hardly accidental that they ended up with defence portfolios at the same time.

French Defence Minister Sylvie Goulard (centre) reviews troops during a visit to France’s Barkhane counter-terrorism operation in Africa’s Sahel region in Gao with French President, northern Mali.

Christophe Petit Tesson/AFP/Getty images

In 2015, Tiffany Barnes of the University of Kentucky and Diana O’Brien of Indiana University studied the practice of appointing female defence ministers — more than 40 countries have done this so far, some 30 of them picking the first woman for the post after 2000 — and came to the conclusion that though the total share of female politicians and top executives in a country predicts the emergence of a woman defence chief, there’s more to the phenomenon than greater equality.

Military dictatorships, countries involved in international conflicts and those with large military budgets relative to the size of their economies don’t put women in top defence positions, Barnes and O’Brien found: “Large military expenditures suggest a political climate that is not conducive to changing norms of female exclusion.”

In four of the five European countries that currently have female defence ministers, the size of the armed forces has recently shrunk faster than in the U.S., where defence is still a male preserve at the top.

At the same time, in three of the four countries defence spending per armed forces member has increased, and in one more it dropped less significantly than in the U.S.

European countries are moving toward smaller, but better-supplied militaries. Italy is the exception on both counts, but that says more about the lack of reforms and the economic problems in that country than about the general direction of military policy.

Dutch Defense minister Jeanine Hennis Plasschaert (left) talks with Norway’s Defense minister Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide prior to a meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

None of the five countries’ military budgets reaches the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s self-imposed threshold of 2 percent gross domestic product. Spain is the furthest from it: It spent 0.9 percent of its GDP on defence in 2016. That hasn’t prevented Cospedal from promising U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis in March that Spain would get there by 2024, though it’s unlikely that she’ll still have the portfolio by then. Germany also promises to get to 2 percent, and even budgets modest increases in spending, but it has a long way to go, given that its defence outlay was just 1.2 percent of GDP in 2016, and it’s been stable throughout von der Leyen’s three-year tenure.

Of course, the military budgets of wealthy European nations are still substantial. But much of the money goes toward peacekeeping operations, in which the five countries are among the most active participants, whether under NATO or United Nations auspices. Barnes and O’Brien found that participation in peacekeeping operations makes it more likely that a country will get a female defence minister.

The women at the top of European military machines are ministers of peace, not war. That explains why European integration experts Hennis-Plasschaert and Goulard got their portfolios: The ideology of their governments is that the EU is their countries’ best defence against military conflict. That sense, of course, is rooted in European powers’ warlike past. Barnes and O’Brien write:

As femininity is often associated with peace, for governments seeking to disassociate themselves from former military abuses of power, the appointment of a female defence minister can offer a visible break from the past and signal change and renewal.

(Left to right) Albanian Defence minister Mimi Kodheli, Dutch defense minister Jeanine Hennis Plasschaert, German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen, Norway defense minister Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide, Italian defense minister Roberta Pinotti are pictured prior a Defence ministers meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

There’s an added dimension to it: European militaries are often the guardians of conservative, nationalist, macho traditions. Von der Leyen is now embroiled in a scandal involving a right-wing conspiracy within the ranks of the Bundeswehr. A number of servicemen were planning to launch a terror attack while impersonating asylum-seekers. One of them even created a false Syrian identity for the purpose. To compound the problem, Nazi memorabilia were recently found in army barracks. Von der Leyen has been quick to criticize the culture within the German military, saying that “the Bundeswehr must clearly signal to both insiders and outsiders that it doesn’t continue the tradition of the Wehrmacht,” the Nazi-era military. Military retirees and generals responded angrily, calling into question the minister’s, and the entire government’s, respect for the armed forces. Von der Leyen issued a half-hearted apology and proceeded with investigations into servicemen’s far-right leanings.

Europe’s governments generally find it hard to believe their countries could be drawn into major conflicts. There’s little fear of the military threats that dominate the U.S. foreign policy discourse. So, while the defence portfolios are still prestigious and important, they require different skills and a different vision than in more warlike nations. Von der Leyen, Goulard, Cospedal, Pinotti and Hennis-Plasschaert symbolize and embody this political reality.

On the other hand, in all five countries, the interior minister, responsible for maintaining domestic order, is currently a man. Equality hasn’t arrived yet in that traditionally male area of expertise, as European voters increasingly demand better law enforcement.

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