YJIA: Looking back at an extraordinarily multifaceted political career, what would be your advice to students who are considering a career in politics—particularly in the face of an increasing disenchantment with politics?
Minister von der Leyen: I think it is best to find your way into politics via a specific topic, instead of aspiring to become a career politician right from the start. Although my father was a well-known politician, I myself had never planned a career in politics. I studied medicine and later on worked as a doctor. Then, I had my seven children. I decided to go into politics because, as a medical doctor, I felt that there was a need to reform the healthcare system. So I would advise young people to start a professional career outside of politics first and to gain expertise in a field that interests them. Once you know exactly what change you would like to make in your country, you should just go for it. It does not have to be quite as late as it was in my case.
YJIA: Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen recently praised Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader.” What does this apparent yearning for “strength” mean in terms of defense policy for countries like Germany and their responsibility for global peace?
Minister von der Leyen: I believe that we all long for simplification and clarity in a way, especially as times become increasingly complex. Globalization, digitization, international terrorism, the erosion of international law: these are megatrends which put many old certainties and achievements into question. Being unable to predict where those changes will take us is disconcerting to many. That concern plays into the hands of those who offer seemingly simple solutions and preach isolation from all things foreign. The solution to these complex problems, however, is not within the power of individuals, as powerful as they may be.
Today more than ever, the solution lies in the cooperation of many.
We need the EU, NATO, the United Nations. Without these organizations, might alone would make right, which would make wars more likely. Germany will do what it can to keep these alliances together.
YJIA: There has been a good deal of discussion about the responsibilities and capabilities of NATO lately. Not only because of recent tensions between NATO and Russian in Eastern Europe, but also because of a leading member’s comments regarding the obligations that all partners need to fulfill so that the Alliance can run smoothly. How can Germany encourage other member states to live up to their obligations?
Minister von der Leyen: By abiding [by] its commitments to the Alliance and by actively taking responsibility for our common security. We are also strengthening the European pillar in NATO by carrying out major NATO projects in cooperation with our neighboring countries. Think of the ‘Euro-drone’ (an unmanned aerial vehicle project designed cooperatively by France, Italy, and Germany), large divisions or the VHJTF (Very High Joint Readiness Task Force) to protect our Eastern European allies. It is clear that Europe needs to shoulder more responsibility. The EU member states command a total of 1.5 million military personnel and invest an aggregate of 200 million Euros in their respective armed forces. In contrast, Europe’s military relevance in the world is limited. This is why I passionately advocate much greater coordination and more effective dovetailing of European security policy. Also, Europe has yet another strength which we do not make nearly enough use of in cases of crisis. Europe has a wide range of economic and civil tools at its disposal. I am referring to diplomats for reconciliation efforts, experts for economic reconstruction, and humanitarian assistance.
Especially in Africa, Europe could have a much greater impact if only it coordinated its civil and military means better and used them more effectively—for example, by planning and conducting civil and military operations together right from the start.
YJIA: In the US general election campaign, the depiction of Muslim refugees as a security threat was an explosive topic. How do you think this same rhetoric will play out in the German federal elections later this year?
Minister von der Leyen: Germany has had to deal with a huge inflow of refugees and, overall, handled this enormous challenge admirably. The number of new arrivals to Germany has fallen to less than one third of what we saw in 2015. We have had a lively debate about whether it was right to afford protection to these people. As open and free societies, we need to live with the fact that absolute security does not exist, but, above all, stands the protection of people fleeing from persecution in war zones. This is enshrined in our Basic Law. Of course, we need to know who enters our country. We have done a lot to improve domestic security, but it has been understood, and not only in Germany, that we need to do more to address the causes of migration and displacement. To me, this is a great challenge for Europe, well beyond the federal elections.
About the Interviewee
 The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany is the constitutional law of the country. It holds, in article 16a, that the Right of asylum will be protected and that “Persons persecuted on political grounds shall have the right of asylum”.
Interview by Johannes Sosada
Edited by Rebecca TeKolste and Michael Pizzi