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

Ministers of peace, not war: How women at top of European military machines are changing the game
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AtThursdays meeting of European Union defense ministersall five of the blocs biggest economies (minus the U.K.) were represented by women a coup completed by the fresh appointment of Sylvie Goulard as thedefence chief in French President Emmanuel Macrons government. This remarkable evolution of what was a traditionally male portfolio reflects the current European attitude toward military force and its raison detre.

The five women at the table on Thursday included Germanys Ursula von der Leyen, Frances Goulard, Italys Roberta Pinotti, Spains 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 femalearea 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. Theyre political appointees but its hardly accidental that they ended up with defence portfolios at the same time.

In 2015, Tiffany Barnes of the University of Kentucky and Diana OBrien of Indiana Universitystudiedthe 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, theres more to the phenomenon than greater equality.

Military dictatorships, countriesinvolved in international conflictsand those with large military budgets relative to the size of their economiesdont put women in top defence positions, Barnes and OBrien 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, inthree 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.

None of the five countries militarybudgets reachesthe North Atlantic Treaty Organizationsself-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 hasnt prevented Cospedal from promising U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis in March that Spain would get there by 2024, though its unlikely that shell 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 its been stable throughout von der Leyens 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 OBrien found that participation in peacekeeping operations makes it more likely that a country will get a female defence minister.

The women at the top ofEuropean 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 warlikepast. Barnes and OBrien 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.

Theres 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 wereplanningto 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 recentlyfoundin army barracks. Von der Leyen has been quick to criticize the culture within the German military,sayingthat the Bundeswehr must clearly signal to both insiders and outsiders that it doesnt continue the tradition of the Wehrmacht, the Nazi-era military. Military retirees and generals responded angrily, calling into question the ministers, and the entire governments, respect for the armed forces. Von der Leyen issued a half-hearted apology and proceeded with investigations into servicemens far-right leanings.

Europes governments generally find it hard to believe their countries could be drawn into major conflicts. Theres 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 andHennis-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 hasnt arrived yetin that traditionally male area of expertise, as European voters increasingly demand better law enforcement.
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