Ursula von der Leyen is insisting nothing has changed. The German defense minister, after a meeting with her U.S. counterpart in Washington Friday, said the countries agree completely on what needs to be done when it comes to military policy and facing common threats like terrorism.
“There were no differences of opinion,” she told reporters. Her comments, however, suggest U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis may have made promises he can’t necessarily keep.
That particularly applies to NATO. Ms. von der Leyen said the two talked about “modernizing” the trans-Atlantic defense organization and said she was heartened by Mr. Mattis’ assurances “that he absolutely stands with NATO and that America stands with NATO.”
It’s a commitment that Mr. Mattis has publicly stood up for in the past, but it isn’t necessarily shared by his boss.
U.S. President Donald Trump called NATO “obsolete” in an interview with European media earlier this year and has in the past suggested America’s defense of European allies may be contingent on the continent paying its fair share of NATO’s military budget.
Ms. von dey Leyen, on her first trip to Washington since Mr. Trump was elected U.S. president, wouldn’t be drawn on the more controversial comments of the Republican president. Instead, she focused on the fact that her meeting with Mr. Mattis was “exceedingly friendly.” It was "important that we speak with one voice," she added.
It was a markedly softer tone for the defense minister, who hasn’t shied away from criticizing Mr. Trump’s policies in the past. It suggests she may be hoping to boost the standing of her U.S. counterpart within the Trump administration.
Her tone also marked something of a departure from that of her German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel, the country’s foreign minister, who was much heavier on the symbolism in his own visit to the U.S. capital at the end of last month. Among other things, Mr. Gabriel took time to read passages from the U.S. Declaration of Independence in a subtle nudge for the new president to uphold common values.
Ms. von der Leyen by contrast focused only on the areas of common ground between the two nations. She agreed with Mr. Trump’s call for Europe to spend more on defense, something the previous Obama administration had also called for (without making the U.S. commitment to Europe’s defense contingent on it fulfilling that demand).
“I think it’s a fair demand,” she said, echoing her own boss Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pledge to boost military spending, though critics say Germany has so far struggled to find ways to spend the extra money.
Germany has been increasingly taking the lead in pushing for a stronger and more unified European defense within NATO – in part as a result of Mr. Trump’s past comments. An example of that: The German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Friday reported that two new brigades, one from Romania and one from the Czech Republic, will soon fall under Germany’s command. NATO’s defense ministers intend to sign off on the measure at a meeting next week.
Ms. von der Leyen said it will be up to Europeans “to bundle our forces in such a way that they are better prepared” for action. That, in turn, could reduce Europe's reliance on the United States coming to its aid.
Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]