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The women of the world

On the untapped promise of women in corridors of international powerto talk, to participate, and to lead

A file photo of German chancellor Angela Merkel (left) with defence minister Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
A file photo of German chancellor Angela Merkel (left) with defence minister Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

I spent last weekend in Germany, surveying some hugely interesting people. I ran into a beaming David Miliband in the elevator, and relished Boris Johnson being told off for saying, predictably, something silly. While John McCain rushed past, there was at least one distressed Royal Highness looking for a seat. President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine delivered a deliciously devastating punch on his counterpart in Russia, while US vice-president Mike Pence reassured his nervous European allies that America will not seek a divorce from their doddering transatlantic union—unconvincing, of course, given the drivel that pours out from @realDonaldTrump battering this marriage. When the Chinese foreign minister championed renewed commitment in the globalized world order, irony retreated behind those protectionist walls that architects of this very order now chaotically scramble to build.

The scene was the Munich Security Conference, where droves of powerful men in dull suits have gathered for 53 years to protect, essentially, Western pre-eminence in the world—a pre-eminence sliding slowly down the wrong side. Nowadays, refreshing numbers of powerful women also come, ranging from Anne Applebaum, who brought with her Pulitzer-quality Twitter commentary, to, of course, German chancellor Angela Merkel, who delivered an unglamorous, sensible speech. There were, however, four women whom I met with a small cohort, all of them remarkable not only because of their mandates, but also because of what they represent—if only there are more women doing the talking, the world might come up with those urgent innovations of thought and method that it so desperately needs.

There are in Europe today over half-a-dozen female defence ministers. I met the charismatic Ursula von der Leyen of Germany, a slight figure surrounded by uniformed generals with formidable noses. Chatham House rules preclude recording what we discussed, but I think I will be excused for repeating her advice for women in international relations—be a woman, think like a woman, and don’t turn into a man. Von der Leyen knows what she’s talking about, because she inhabits a critical ministry in a country that is central to Europe’s destiny, a country that has painfully reconciled to its own dark history, and is uniquely poised to remind us of what is at stake if the world excuses the aggressive hyper-masculine rhetoric erupting everywhere. She is a senior political leader in the world—and her experience as a woman is central to her vision.

Female political perspectives differ from those of their male interlocutors’, who, broadly speaking, rarely see things except from one privileged side. This is not to say that the male view lacks value or is unlayered—it is, however, so pervasive that it can suffocate with tedium and homogeneity. Men, if they can look past their noses, will agree that women bring much needed originality to the way things are done—perhaps men should sometimes think like women. There was in Von der Leyen’s style, for instance, something visibly easy and direct in comparison with the intelligent but stiffly starched men sitting by her. Not only was there palpable admiration for her mind, there was also respect for her refusal to “be a man" in the way she discharges her duties. Her femininity informs her work, and in a stagnating male-dominated universe, this is energizing.

Norway too, with its celebrated model that combines welfare with wealth creation and human rights, has a woman at the helm of its defence. Ine Marie Søreide is just on the other side of 40 and came without generals—I imagine demonstration of power through retinue is an affliction she has escaped, and she discarded protocol and got straight to business. After discussing Nato, security strategy and the future of the European Union, I saw her afterwards, sipping coffee in the lobby, giggling with some other women. Stiffly starched men could also learn to giggle now and then. So too came the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court focused on her mission, and who brings to her office not only education, ability and legal brilliance, but also her experience as a black woman in a society designed for (white) men. If a new world order is to be built, people like her must be among its architects.

Just before our meeting with the chairwoman of the Chinese foreign affairs committee, my own prejudice made an appearance, mixing mulishness with other embarrassing predispositions. China, after all, is not a country India is comfortable with. I had, at some level, decided that the engagement would be boring, and that this lady would parrot something un-enlightening. When Madame Fu Ying began to speak, however, it was to me the first time that Chinese foreign policy was articulated with large doses of what can (somewhat problematically) be called grace—and it was articulated strikingly well. I didn’t buy the substance of many answers, but we wanted to listen to this spokesperson for the People’s Republic. And that is the mark of any spokesperson’s success in presenting her country’s position to the world. It was a sentiment shared by others around that table, like me reinvigorated by this leader who came with no chips on her shoulder.

I encountered very many interesting people in Munich over the weekend but left with my mind fixated on the untapped promise of women in corridors of international power—to talk, to participate, and to lead. Powerful men in dull suits must urgently make room. For it is already too late and we have many crises to deal with, including one called Donald.

Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.

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