SPIEGEL: Ms. von der Leyen, are there times when you would prefer to be foreign minister rather than the head of the Defense Ministry?
Von der Leyen: No. I like being defense minister.
SPIEGEL: Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has managed to take center stage in the Ukraine crisis, but the same hasn't been true of you. When you speak, people interpret it as warmongering.
Von der Leyen: That's in the nature of the office. It is of course clear that this crisis, caused by Russia, requires a diplomatic solution more than anything. At the same time, in light of Russia's military actions the defensive alliance must make clear that it is strong and united. Only those who are united and certain are in a good negotiating position.
SPIEGEL: So is the Ukraine crisis a case for defense policy?
Von der Leyen: Ukraine isn't NATO territory, but Vladimir Putin has destroyed an enormous amount of trust with his conduct. That's why we have to take the concerns of our Eastern partners very seriously.
SPIEGEL: Last week, United States President Barack Obama announced a strengthening of the American military presence in Eastern Europe. Can this contribute to finding a solution to the crisis?
Von der Leyen: I welcome Obama's announcement. It is a sign of America's engagement for Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance …
SPIEGEL: … it means that Europe's military capacities will be upgraded. Is that the right approach?
Von der Leyen: The primary thing we have to do is provide security for our Eastern partners. We Germans know what it meant to live on the border of the Warsaw Pact countries. The Allies provided us with security so that a prosperous West Germany could be created. We haven't forgotten that.
SPIEGEL: Are we falling back into the Cold War era?
Von der Leyen: No. But the situation is serious. Russia has destroyed a massive amount of trust. At the same time, there are many crises that cannot be solved without Russia in a globally networked world. That's why we need to do everything we can to help Russia find its way back to a policy of dialogue.
SPIEGEL: Is Russia really a partner still, or has it become an adversary?
Von der Leyen: Currently, Russia is not a partner. Partners adhere to joint agreements. Still, it is also true that Russia cannot be allowed to become our opponent.
SPIEGEL: The Western military alliance is currently in the process of sending a military message to Russia.
Von der Leyen: NATO is the world's strongest alliance and has proven over the decades that it can adjust to new threat scenarios. Its philosophy is to use its position of strength to engage in dialogue. The hand that has been extended to Russia has to come from a position of strength.
SPIEGEL: Does NATO now need to adapt to a new threat? The Baltic states and Poland want NATO combat troops in Eastern Europe, but that would affect the Basic Treaty with Russia. What is your position?
Von der Leyen: Even if Russia unilaterally violated the document, we should still comply with it. Rules that we once created shouldn't be abandoned frivolously. They can provide the basis for a new beginning. Even a rocky basis is better than none at all. It is important for Poland and the Baltic states that NATO be able to react swiftly. It is possible to provide that already today without permanently stationed units.
SPIEGEL: Would it be possible for NATO to defend the Baltic states in a conventional way with its current positioning?
Von der Leyen: Yes.
SPIEGEL: Our own reporting indicates that politicians and members of intelligence services in many NATO member states view the situation differently.
Von der Leyen: Let me reiterate: NATO is the world's strongest military alliance. President Putin knows that NATO stands solidly behind its Eastern members. That's why he won't touch the sovereignty or integrity of these countries.
SPIEGEL: What is the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, doing to contribute to overcoming the crisis?
Von der Leyen: The Bundeswehr is participating in NATO measures to provide security for the Baltic states. We are leading the NATO minesweepers in the Baltic Sea and we will also participate in the monitoring of air space beginning in September. We were the first NATO member state to come up with a concrete proposal together with Poland and Denmark for reinforcement measures in the mid-term. And we are reinforcing the Multinational Corps Northeast in Szczecin, Poland, so that NATO can react more quickly in the alliance's eastern territories. This has all been recognized.
SPIEGEL: You are planning on sending 50 additional soldiers to Szczecin, which is located right on the border to Germany and, as such, is one of the western-most locations in Eastern Europe. Is there any more to this than token politics?
Von der Leyen: There's much more behind this. We're just beginning the detailed planning. The Corps Northeast stands for NATO's ability to adapt. It is multinational, rotating and flexible. The troops continue to be distributed across Europe, but they conduct joint exercises and are prepared in emergency situations to act jointly. That is the modern NATO philosophy, which is no longer about the static stationing of large troop formations. That is an antiquated Cold War concept.
SPIEGEL: A week ago Tuesday in Warsaw, Obama warned Europeans yet again that they need to make a greater financial contribution to NATO.
Von der Leyen: The United States cannot be made to carry disproportionate NATO burdens in the long run. But many European countries have shrinking national budgets, and as such also shrinking defense budgets, because of the euro crisis. We have to stop this downward trend. More important, though, is that we use the means available to us more effectively.
SPIEGEL: Does Germany need to spend more on defense given the changing threat situation?
Von der Leyen: We have numerous challenges to meet. To do that, we need a solidly financed defense budget. How this budget will develop in Germany is dependent on economic developments.
SPIEGEL: So the defense budget will grow if the German economy grows?
Von der Leyen: That's a conversation I will first have with the finance minister.
SPIEGEL: In Germany, military buildups and deployments are unpopular with the public. Could military investments even be pushed through?
Von der Leyen: Not as an end in itself. The Germans approach this question in a very differentiated manner. They rightly ask why money is being spent and for what. Polls show that Germans support the fact that we are active in ensuring peace and freedom. That is also our approach in the alliances: We want to play a part in them. But with German thoroughness and perseverance and not foolhardiness.
'The US Is Still an Important Partner'
SPIEGEL: There was never support among the population for the Bundeswehr's deployment in Afghanistan. Why do you think that is?
Von der Leyen: Afghanistan is a complex conflict that can't be solved in the short-term. One can never tire of explaining that Germany's security is also being defended in the Hindu Kush, as my predecessor Peter Struck once said. Successes only gradually become visible and it is the long length of the deployment, the losses and the doubts that characterize the German debate.
SPIEGEL: Does that mean we should be content with little?
Von der Leyen: No. It makes a difference for Afghanistan's future if 8 million children go to school, among them 3 million girls. And if the people can vote for their rights through high voter turnout during the presidential election, even with the presence of danger. This is the right path.
SPIEGEL: But the security situation has deteriorated massively during the past year.
Von der Leyen: In the long run, transferring responsibility to the Afghani people for providing security is the only way to establish self-determination. The international community is now taking a back seat. We are providing advice, support and training.
SPIEGEL: But even as the Bundeswehr withdraws further, the Afghan people find themselves confronted with a growing number of incidents. You call that success?
Von der Leyen: It's a tough pill to swallow, but the time has come for us to transfer responsibility. It's a responsibility the Afghans also want to have.
SPIEGEL: Was the progress achieved worth a 12-year deployment and the loss of the lives of 50 Bundeswehr soldiers?
Von der Leyen: I don't like these types of calculations. Nothing can compensate for the pain of the affected families.
SPIEGEL: Could you imagine coming to the conclusion a few years from now that the mission has failed?
Von der Leyen: The latest developments give me hope, but I also don't have a crystal ball I can look into. What is important is that we learn our lessons from the deployment. One is that military deployments must always be combined with diplomatic efforts and civilian development.
SPIEGEL: Still, it appears as though politicians are hesitant to critically debate the deployment. Are we missing an honest taking of stock?
Von der Leyen: Let's just imagine what would have happened if the international community had ceded control to the Taliban. Would we be in a better position today?
SPIEGEL: US President Barack Obama announced that he wants to completely withdraw his own troops from Afghanistan by 2016. Doesn't that move go against the goal of sustainability?
Von der Leyen: I'm pleased that Obama stated figures. Together with all the other nations, we can now jointly plan the support mission that follows the end of the combat deployment. There are many steps that must be taken by 2016. We should consider how we can get the country on the best possible path by then.
SPIEGEL: What will it mean for the Bundeswehr's participation if America withdraws?
Von der Leyen: Right now that is pure speculation. The only thing that is clear is that we began this deployment as an alliance and we will end it as an alliance. Obama also emphasized the importance of cooperation with the partner nations in his speech at West Point a few days ago.
SPIEGEL: At the same time, he acted on his own in making the statement.
Von der Leyen: It was an important initial signal. The Americans are now taking on a key role. Many countries waited for this signal and will now set to work planning the support mission.
SPIEGEL: The US is playing a less dominant role in global security policy than in the past. What does this mean for Germany?
Von der Leyen: The US is still an important partner. That's why Obama's announcement to act within alliances is a good sign. Germany will exercise its responsibility within NATO and the EU.
SPIEGEL: In statistical terms, the opposite is true at the moment. A few years ago, some 10,000 German soldiers were deployed on missions abroad. Today, less than half that figure is deployed.
Von der Leyen: The number of soldiers deployed says little about how involved Germany is internationally. There are other indicators.
SPIEGEL: Such as?
Von der Leyen: It's not always just about the military. It's also about a general attitude of whether one is prepared to assume responsibility. I learned a lesson from the German government's decision to abstain in the United Nations Security Council during the Libya crisis in 2011. It triggered strong resistance internationally. That's why I share the position of Germany's president and foreign minister, both of whom have said that Germany must be more engaged. That is also happening. But you can't win back trust overnight.
SPIEGEL: After those speeches, one could also get the impression things remain status quo: spectacular announcements are made, but there is little follow-up.
Von der Leyen: I disagree entirely. Just take a look at what has happened since the beginning of the year. Germany is participating in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. In Mali we are focusing on the training mission. In Somalia we are once again standing side-by-side with our partners in the EU training mission. And the EU deployment in Central Africa first came into play when Germany provided key capabilities in air transport and medical evacuation.
SPIEGEL: Even so, the situation in Central Africa hasn't improved since then.
Von der Leyen: Nobody promised a quick success. The mission is only just beginning. The problem in Central Africa is that we are dealing with a failing society. Even providing protection zones is of value.
SPIEGEL: You recently said that indifference is no option in Syria. How do you reconcile that statement with the passivity taking place on this issue?
Von der Leyen: Tireless diplomatic efforts are being made, and Germany is participating in diverse ways.
SPIEGEL: Again, some 160,000 people have already died as a result of the conflict and some 9 million have become refugees. All Germany is doing is destroying a few chemical weapons. You call that German participation?
Von der Leyen: Here's the bitter truth: Solving this highly complex conflict requires a common political will among all involved parties. A military intervention is no substitute for that.
SPIEGEL: What do you consider to be the criteria for German military engagement?
Von der Leyen: There is no common template for this because the conflicts and threats in a globalized world vary too widely. What is certain is that Germany can only participate militarily as part of alliances. And we believe strongly in the principle of networked security. This means that diplomacy goes hand in hand with economic cooperation and, if necessary, also with a military aspect. That's the German trademark.
SPIEGEL: Why are you encountering so much resistance for your new foreign policy from within your own government?
Von der Leyen: My experience has been that persistent persuasion pays dividends in the long run.
SPIEGEL: Ms. von der Leyen, we thank you for this interview.