If Angela Merkel decides to step down as Germany’s first female chancellor when her third term ends in 2017, her most likely successor may well be another woman who has already proved she is capable of revolutionizing society. In a country that has one of the world’s lowest birth rates, in part because many German women believe careers and children are incompatible, Ursula von der Leyen has managed both motherhood and career in extraordinary fashion, raising seven children and rising in the CDU hierarchy to become vice chairwoman and Germany’s first female defense minister.
A qualified medical doctor, von der Leyen, who is 56, assumed the position of defense minister 16 months ago in Merkel’s third government—a grand coalition of center-right Christian Democrats and center-left Social Democrats—knowing full well that the office can be a political minefield. Her three predecessors were forced to resign early over various scandals involving a botched drone program, plagiarism allegations, and civilian deaths in Afghanistan involving German soldiers. In addition, Germany has come under intense pressure from the United States and other NATO allies to boost its defense spending. Despite its being one of the world’s most prosperous nations, Germany still spends well below the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP, fueling charges that it is a “free rider” when it comes to its defense commitments in the Western alliance.
Shortly after taking office, von der Leyen discovered that nine key defense projects were plagued by cost overruns and delays even as she was promising the Western allies, in a speech at the Munich Security Conference, that it was time for Germany to assume greater responsibility for Europe’s defense and security needs. Meantime, a German parliament report found that only 42 out of 109 of the country’s Eurofighter jets were operational. When von der Leyen traveled to Iraq last September to attend a ceremony marking Germany’s first shipment of weapons to Kurdish fighters opposing the Islamic state terrorists, she was embarrassed to learn that the guns had failed to show up because the transport plane broke down.
Such setbacks have not fazed von der Leyen, and she gets credit from many commentators for confronting problems that festered for years, never having been properly addressed by her predecessors. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine, she and Merkel have taken a courageous stand in favor of Western economic sanctions against Moscow even though Germany will suffer more than most nations in terms of lost trade and profits. While Germany has rejected the idea of supplying defensive arms to the Ukrainian government, fearing that this step would only escalate conflict, von der Leyen has managed to persuade a recalcitrant cabinet to spend more money to enhance German defense capabilities with more than 100 new Leopard tanks.
Von der Leyen’s resilience in the face of such challenges reflects her fierce political convictions. She has not hesitated in breaking with her party’s conservative base, and even with the chancellor, when their views diverge. As minister for Labor and Social Affairs in Merkel’s previous government, from 2009 to 2013, von der Leyen fought long and hard to introduce better paternity benefits to encourage more working women to have children, and to make it easier for their partners to assume a greater share of the burden in raising children and handling domestic chores.
She readily acknowledges that her political career has been possible only because her husband, Heiko, a university professor of medicine, has been able to devote much of his time to looking after their children at their home near Hanover in Lower Saxony. She says her zeal in pushing through new legislation for paternity benefits, despite the early opposition of the Chancellor and much of her party, was driven by the conviction that more German men need to follow her husband’s example. In order for Germany to create a healthier culture for working parents, manage immigration flows, and fulfill employment vacancies in an aging society, she believes it is vital for Germany to bring more women into the workforce. In the process, she has become a role model for young women who want to break with tradition in a society still imbued with the 19th century notion that a woman’s life should focus on “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (children, kitchen, church).
Von der Leyen’s political career owes much to her father, Ernst Albrecht, a former conservative Christian Democrat prime minister of Lower Saxony. He later became a senior official at the European Union’s executive commission in Brussels, where she was born in 1958. Her early years in the “capital of Europe” nurtured her fluency in several languages, as well as her convictions about the need to create a United States of Europe. In her view, a more unified Europe would have a strong voice on the world stage, but would also strive to devolve important powers to local authorities, as with the federal states of Germany, Switzerland or the United States. At times, her pro-Europe attitudes have placed her at odds with Merkel and the CDU mainstream, which have become more protective of German national interests, particularly when it comes to doling out funds to rescue the economies of Greece, Italy, Spain and other southern European partners.
Despite her political pedigree, von der Leyen’s first love was medicine. She studied at Hanover Medical School, earned her medical license, and began her practice in a local gynecology clinic. After she married Heiko, the couple decided in 1992 to decamp for Stanford, California, where he was offered a teaching fellowship. While Heiko taught and conducted research, she set about having children in rapid succession. There, she recalled in a recent conversation, the innovative and flexible social nature of California captivated her and made her ask herself why her own country could not make life easier for working couples with children. By the time the couple returned to Germany a few years later, she was determined that her growing family would try to maintain the positive California attitudes they encountered at Stanford. After getting another degree in public health, she soon resolved that rather than pursue a medical career, she could make a greater impact by following her father into politics.
After serving in local government posts in Hanover, she was elected to the state parliament in 2003. There, she became Lower Saxony’s minister for social affairs, women, family affairs and health, a position she would later assume at the federal level, when the Christian Democrats regained power after seven years in opposition to the center-left ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens. Von der Leyen and Merkel—two rare women in the conservative party—bonded after the German leader successfully ousted former Chancellor Helmut Kohl from the party leadership and led the Christian Democrats to an electoral victory in 2005. She became Merkel’s close political ally and was rewarded with a key role in the CDU presidium, in addition to a cabinet post.
Von der Leyen is predictably coy about her future ambitions and dismisses any talk about becoming Merkel’s successor. The chancellor is regarded as a wily tactician and clever operative: she has dispatched several male challengers to the political graveyard. She monitors opinion polls to make sure that none of her cabinet ministers ever becomes too popular to present a challenge to her power. But Merkel has indicated that she does not want to stay in office for too long and would be deeply reluctant to follow Kohl’s example in running for a fourth term as chancellor. As somebody who is widely praised as having done a superb job as chancellor, and who is arguably the most powerful woman in the world, there are sure to be enticing career options for Merkel, who will turn sixty when her third term ends in 2017. Some aides and political allies have raised the prospect that she might become the next president of the European Union, or even the next United Nations Secretary General.
If so, given her meticulous and calculating nature, Merkel will undoubtedly seek to cultivate a successor who would perpetuate her legacy in serving the interests of Germany and Europe. For the moment, there would seem to be nobody on the horizon who would fulfill that mandate better than Ursula von der Leyen.
William Drozdiak is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and senior advisor for Europe with McLarty Associates.