German Defense Minister On U.S.: We Have To Defend Common Values

Robert Siegel speaks with Ursula von der Leyen, the defense minister of Germany, about the latest news out of Ukraine and Germany's complex relationship with the U.S.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

More now, on Ukraine and other matters confronting the U.S. and its allies. We're going to talk with Ursula von der Leyen, who is the defense minister of Germany a very high-ranking member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union. Welcome to the program.

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: As we've heard, the latest news from Ukraine includes a plan by the newly elected Ukrainian president for a unilateral cease-fire in the East, but according to the Secretary General of NATO, more Russian troops along the Ukrainian border. Does that mean that NATO's mix of sanctions, warning of sanctions, warnings of isolation of Russia, simply haven't worked and haven't deterred Vladimir Putin form pressuring Ukraine.

VON DER LEYEN: Well, let me put in two pictures. The first one is we are fully aware that Russia is not partner anymore and we're not going back to business as usual and it will take a long, long, long time before things will change, no question about that. The second thing is the heads of state and government will meet at the end of June and analyze whether the third tier of sanctions has to be drawn or not. So far the sanctions we imposed already, although they were kind of small sanctions, had an enormous impact already because if you look at the Russian economy, you see already an enormous effect of withdrawal of capital, the investors - the potential international investors do not invest anymore, so this is the point to hurt him.

SIEGEL: But these were the intended means to an end, the end was to alter Russia's policy on Ukraine and not to mention in Crimea. To that extent they haven't worked, have they?

VON DER LEYEN: They have because we know definitely that Putin's goal was to make sure that there will be no election, so far an election took place. He said that he'll respect the election, which is a step forward. So we know that there are many movements he wanted to make, he didn't achieve to make. So we were successful so far, but we're still aware of the problem that is there in the region.

SIEGEL: Recent polls in Germany show that the trust that Germans have in the United States is down to the levels it was at during the height of the war in Iraq. Significant numbers of Germans also, according to some polls, would prefer some middle position on Ukraine as opposed to a pro-U.S. or NATO position on Ukraine. Is President Obama losing the German public these days?

VON DER LEYEN: I think it is extremely important to keep up the trust, the confidence and the friendship between Germany and America - that's my daily work - because we know we share the same values and the transatlantic bond is something very precious.

SIEGEL: When you say keep it up, you mean make it better than it is right now because it's pretty low these days?

VON DER LEYEN: Well, you know, it's like it is with values, you have to work on them every day to keep them alive by words and by deeds. And, yes, perhaps in the past we took it too much for granted, but I think friends are able to discuss difficult things without losing their friendship and that's what I'm working on.

SIEGEL: Well, does the experience of German troops serving in Afghanistan, let's say, does that make it more or less likely that your country would take part in future NATO deployments led by the United States?

VON DER LEYEN: Yes, it was a difficult experience for my country, but a valuable one because we saw that if we share common values, we have to defend them together in an alliance.

SIEGEL: But do you think most Germans would look at the result of 13 years in Afghanistan, where the country is today, and say that was a successful NATO operation, we had to lose a few dozen lives for this cause and it was worth it?

VON DER LEYEN: We would put it in different words. I think you can - every life you lose is one too much and we feel sorrow for that. But on the other hand, for me, it is absolutely a success. And we have to persuade over and over our public what the milestones are we achieved.

SIEGEL: In Iraq, the post-Saddam Hussein system that was brought about by the U.S. appears right now to be collapsing. Does that fact make it harder for someone like you or Chancellor Merkel to urge Germans to follow the U.S. lead when our policies don't seem to have worked out so well?

VON DER LEYEN: Well, as it is in conflict zones, it's not easy to have a quick fix and therefore I was impressed of the highly differentiated debate I find here in the United States on that topic.

SIEGEL: Highly differentiated?

VON DER LEYEN: Yes, it's very differentiated, very thoughtful, so the analysis is very deep and that's a good sign to have a good basis of decision.

SIEGEL: Minister, a couple of personal questions. You lived the United States for - in Palo Alto?

VON DER LEYEN: Yeah, yeah, we lived in Menlo Park, Stanford, and it was a wonderful time.

SIEGEL: And your husband was on the faculty at Stanford?

VON DER LEYEN: Exactly, he's a cardiologist and he did research at Stanford and I loved it, I loved it.

SIEGEL: Who's going to win the World Cup?

VON DER LEYEN: (Laughing) We hope Germany.

SIEGEL: Well, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen of Germany, thank you very much -

VON DER LEYEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: ...For talking with us today.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED continues right after this.

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