April 1, 2020: LiveAtState Briefing with Kay Bailey Hutchison

Kay Bailey Hutchison

U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO

LiveAtState Briefing

April 1, 2020

Moderator:  Hello, and welcome to LiveAtState, the State Department’s live, interactive online press briefing platform.  Today we are very fortunate to be joined by the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Permanent Representative to NATO, Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison.  

Before I turn it over to her for opening remarks, just a few quick words on logistics.  In the Slido platform you can type in your question at any time.  Please do include your name and outlet so that we can identify you properly.  And if you see any questions that your colleagues have asked that you would like us to ask as well, you can upvote that question by clicking the thumbs-up button next to the question.

With that I will turn it over to Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison for opening remarks. 

Ambassador Hutchison:  Well, thank you very much, and thank you for having this forum.  It is going to be a very important foreign ministerial at NATO tomorrow, Thursday, and while the overriding interest of all of our countries right now is the coronavirus, which is affecting all of our allies, and really this pandemic is new for NATO because we haven’t had a universal crisis of this magnitude since NATO was formed in 1949.

So we are trying to come together, and NATO is doing a great job of coordinating our coronavirus countries of need, asking for certain items.  We’re sharing.  We’re – for instance, the United States, if we have surplus things, we share.  

We are giving enormous sums to the international organizations, the World Health Organization, WHO*, and as well as direct assistance to some of our allies like Italy, Spain, and Romania that are taking heavy losses.  So we are coming together, we are a clearing point for our allies, and our partners as well.

As they have needs and equipment, or medical help, or medical professionals, we are trying to help guide our other allies who are willing to help.  I will call out that Turkey this morning has sent help directly, a whole planeload to both Turkey and to Spain, and those are just some examples.  We are giving heavily in those areas as well, and I will say that I’m very proud to see our U.S. Navy hospital ships, Mercy and Comfort, that we – when I was in the Senate, I helped protect the two and keep those ships going, because we want it to be available for foreign needs. 

But now they’re helping our own people, so I’m very proud that our U.S. Navy is stepping up and saying we have this capacity, our people need it, and we’re going to offload many of the patients in hospitals that are not affected by corona, to protect them from being affected by it.  So we’re very, very pleased that our military investments have also helped all of our allies in these humanitarian needs that they are facing.

In addition, at the ministerial tomorrow we will – our foreign ministers will be discussing keeping going in the missions that we have.  We can’t take a break from our responsibilities in Afghanistan, Iraq, enhanced forward presence in Europe, in Kosovo.  So we are, we – President Trump asked NATO to do more in Iraq.  The ministers will be discussing phase one of an answer to the President to say that we will start planning, hopefully to go into Iraq when the time is right.

Right now Iraq is having serious problems with their government and with this coronavirus.  So we’re helping in humanitarian ways, but also went to help assure that ISIS is not reformed in Iraq, or that Iranian militias are not able to do more damage than they already have in Iraq.

In Afghanistan we will have a number of briefs on what is going on in Afghanistan.  We’re on the cusp of a peace talk that is intra-Afghan, and we are hoping that the group that has been selected by the government – that is widely representative of the different peoples of Afghanistan – will be able to sit down with the Taliban representatives and hammer out a peace agreement that will help the people of Afghanistan.

But we are very cautious about the results there, because we want the leaders of government, the political leaders to come together and be unified in this effort, and we want the Taliban to keep its word that violence will be lowered.  And the Afghan soldiers have taken attacks by the Taliban just in the last few weeks that must stop, so that the Afghan people can have their own government that will serve them in peace.  That’s our goal. 

So we’re going to have a lot of discussions at the ministerial about our real core efforts, but a lot of the discussion will be about the coronavirus, and how we can come together and help each other to get through this terrible pandemic.  

Moderator:  Thank you so much, Ambassador, for those remarks.  Now we will turn to the question and answer portion of today’s call.  Again, if you’d like to ask a question, please feel free to type it in directly and upvote the questions of your colleagues.  We have approximately 25 minutes and we will get to as many questions as we can in the time that we have.

Our first question comes to us from Mark Carlson with AP TV here in Belgium.  He asks, “The Coronavirus is causing problems on the USS Roosevelt aircraft carrier.  How can the U.S. and NATO keep an active military presence when the virus spreads so quickly between troops, sailors, et cetera, who are in groups?”

Ambassador Hutchison:  Yes, that’s a very good question because, of course, in a ship like that the quarters are very close, and the commander of that ship did reach out and say we must treat the people who might have this virus, we need the testing equipment.  And the acting Secretary of the Navy has responded to say, of course, we’re going to take care of those who are showing symptoms.  They will be able to be tested and the ship will probably be paused for a couple of weeks as the sailors that are affected are able to be treated, and the others are kept safe, and they will then pick up operations.

But I think as I have said earlier, we are continuing all of our military activities that are missions that are ongoing right now.  We’re not slowing down at all.  At the same time, we are protecting our troops that are in the field.  We are quarantining where necessary, we are treating where necessary, and we are going to take care of our military professionals at the same time to let them do their jobs, because terrorism is not stopping while we are dealing with this virus.  And we must all come together to keep our eye on that ball.

Moderator:  Thank you for that answer.  Our next question comes to us from Vladimir Ermakov with Interfax.  He asks, “Would you welcome cooperation between Russia and NATO in the fight against coronavirus?  Do you view the presence of Russian military medics in Italy as a threat to the alliance or is it a good thing?”

Ambassador Hutchison:  Well, I think this is a time when it is a humanitarian crisis, it’s a health crisis, and any help that we can give each other, we should, and I think we will all be trying to go to the places where the crisis is the worst and try to get those areas back on track, and then be available to help the next ones that might be getting in a worse situation.

We’re seeing this sort of cascade in a way that goes in waves.  So this is a time when, if we can, if we have the ability to help each other, we should and we will.

Moderator:  Our next question comes to us from Boris Kamchev with the Macedonian Information Agency in North Macedonia.  He asks, “On Monday, March 30th, North Macedonia’s flag began to fly over the NATO headquarters.  What is your message for the newest, 30th member of the alliance?”

Ambassador Hutchison:  We are so proud to have North Macedonia now as a full ally member of NATO.  They have shown such great courage, the people of North Macedonia, in taking the political decision and going forward.  They’ve worked for 20 years to become a member of NATO, and we are very proud to welcome them, and to also show that the door to NATO is open to countries that want democracies, freedom, free press, and human rights, and rule of law.

These are the basic values that NATO members have and have sworn to protect, and Macedonia, North Macedonia has come in with the reforms that are necessary, and we are very proud to call them an ally.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question comes to us from Thomas Gutschker with F.A.Z. in Germany.  He asks, “How concerned are you that Russia is taking advantage of COVID-19 to undermine NATO’s security?”

Ambassador Hutchison:  Well, I think that it’s very important that we not close our eyes to the disinformation that has gone out, some by Russia, some by China, that is trying to lay blame on others for this crisis.  This is not the time for blame and it’s not the time to try to divide our publics, either. 

So we’re very aware of the disinformation that has gone out and we are going to show the facts, and the facts are that we are coming together, we’re doing everything we can as free democracies that are helping each other in this time of need.

So there’s no reason for malign influence from Russia or China, or any other group at a time like this.

Moderator:  Our next question comes to us from Oscar Gorzynski with Polish Press Agency.  He asks, “Will the pandemic change U.S. force posture in Europe, particularly in the context of its increasing presence in Poland and NATO’s eastern flank?”

Ambassador Hutchison:  We are totally committed to Europe.  In fact, this is not a time when we would be lowering our numbers of troops.  We want our troops to stay in place, and we want to protect them and give them health care, where needed, in place.  Traveling and spreading the virus is not in anyone’s interest.  

We are committed in Europe, we are committed to Poland, we are committed to the Baltics.  We are committed to the absolute security of our NATO allies, as well as our partners, like Ukraine and Georgia, where there are encroachments by Russia of their sovereign needs.  So we’re there, we are not going to change, and we are certainly not leaving Europe because of the coronavirus.  We are staying put and treating in place.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question comes to us from Nicolas Barotte with Le Figaro in France.  He asks, “What lessons should NATO learn from the coronavirus crisis?  What specific topics should the group of experts co-chaired by Thomas de Maiziere and Wess Mitchell work on?”

Ambassador Hutchison:  Yes.  That’s a great question because, of course, we are learning a lot.  We’ve never had a pandemic that has affected every NATO ally at the same time.  So we are working in ways to coordinate what the needs are of our different allies and our partners, and I think we are becoming the sort of central point at which information is spread.

We are also using our military assets for these humanitarian and health care needs, which shows the importance of the defense investments that our heads of state agreed to, to spend 2 percent on defense.  And some of the capabilities that we’re seeing right now are defense capabilities that are going toward health care and humanitarian purposes.  So I think we are learning a lot, we are going to take this as a way to be prepared, better prepared, for this kind of pandemic in the future.  And I think it’s been a good experience.

On the reflections process, I think that what we have is a group of people, put together by the Secretary General, who will look at the long term for NATO, which is certainly something that any organization should do, to be seeing what are the risks for the future, what should we be preparing for.  We are a deterrence and defense alliance.  We are not an offense, we’re a defense.  So we need to know what the offenses are going to be out there in the future and prepare for that.

And I think we’ve already shown in many ways that we have done that, by adopting space as an operable area that we may have to have a defense in because of malign influence, social media, even the use of artificial intelligence.  So most certainly we’ve learned a lot already.

But let’s look at NATO in the future, and perhaps the bigger adversaries that we might have with the different kinds of weapons that might be used.  And I think this reflections group could look at how a group of 30 allies can function better, function more in a speed of relevance to address the concerns and risks that we face.  And when you’re talking about 30 people that – 30 governments that have differing priorities but the same values, we need to find a way that we can move forward together, even if we don’t agree on every single point.  So that might be something that the reflections process would take up, and look at more thoughtfully than any of us who are on the front lines right now could, and make suggestions.  And then I think that could be a positive result.

Moderator:  That’s great, thanks.  Our next question comes to us from Nicholas Fiorenza with Jane’s Defence Weekly in the UK.  He asks, “Does COVID-19 weaken U.S. commitment to Europe and NATO’s collective defense capabilities?”

Ambassador Hutchison:  Oh, I think that COVID-19 has most certainly thrown us all off course for a bit, and we are all dealing with it together.  And I think we had a meeting of our NATO ambassadors yesterday, and we talked about what we are doing together, and the responses that we have gotten from our allies and also our partners where the effects are strongest, where the results must be delivered immediately to save the deaths that we are seeing from this horrible pandemic.

And I think it’s making us stronger in many ways.  And our partners – UK – are doing their part, as well.  They’re in lockdown, just like we are right here in Brussels, like we are in the United States in many of our cities.  And it’s hard.  It’s hard to do that, because we’re all social people.  We want to be together.  But we have to sacrifice now for the greater good, and I think we’re doing it.  And we’re sharing the costs, and we’re sharing the equipment, and we’re sharing the information.  And I will just reiterate that our defense investments are really coming through here.  Our militaries are building more hospitals, like they would on a battlefield, the temporary hospitals, because we have such an overflow right now.

At the same time, our great entrepreneurs in science are looking for the testing.  And it looks like we may have a potential in that field for a test that is very much quicker to get the results, so that we can treat people more quickly and stop the spread more quickly.  And the same in looking for a vaccination that will either protect us or treat this virus.  So we are putting our scientific and entrepreneurial spirit together with the military investments that we have made that can build these quick, temporary hospitals, so that people can be treated. 

And I think we are going to get a grip on this so that we will learn how to do it more quickly next time.  But I think our NATO alliance is at the forefront of making these strides that will protect us more in the future.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question comes to us from Oskar Gorzynski from the Polish Press Agency, who asks, “Are you concerned about NATO members’ willingness to invest in defense in post-pandemic times?  Some voices in Europe are already calling for slashing defense budgets or canceling weapons purchases to direct more money towards health care and the economy.”

Ambassador Hutchison:  Well, it’s a really good question, and a very tough call.  And we will do everything to assure that we have that military spending that has shown to be very important in this humanitarian and health care crisis.  But all of our economies are suffering, there is no doubt about it.  So we know there will be hard choices, but we believe the security choice is the most important, because terrorism is not going to stop.  Aggression from adversaries is not going to stop.  Testing of ballistic missiles that could harm us is not going to stop. 

So we must, as democracies, though we are much more egalitarian, much more aware of the needs of our people, we are going to have to put security absolutely at the top, which will accrue to our health care benefits and our ability to address a pandemic as we are facing right now.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question comes to us from Natalia Kochiashvili with The Messenger in Georgia.  She asks:  “NATO recently welcomed North Macedonia as its 30th member.  What does this enlargement mean for aspirant countries like Georgia, Ukraine, and Bosnia and Herzegovina?”

Ambassador Hutchison:  We are committed to all of those countries to become the future members of NATO.  We want all of them.  

And we have been to Georgia, we have been to Ukraine.  We want their reforms to come forward so that they can prevail over the Russian misinformation and actual border-enforcing of parts of their countries – Georgia and Ukraine.  Russia must let those countries have their sovereign rule, their sovereign territory, their boundaries, and we are very intent on helping Georgia and Ukraine continue to respond to the Russian aggression that has taken over parts of their countries.  And we are not going to let down on those efforts.  

So we have an open door.  I think that’s what the accession of North Macedonia shows.  And we are helping our partners, Georgia and Ukraine.  We are giving them a package that will be discussed tomorrow at the foreign ministerial.  I believe the foreign ministers will approve a package that continues to build on our support and help for Georgia and Ukraine, and we are working with the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to try to get their reforms in place and make sure that their minorities are working with their majority to have a government that can produce those reforms in that very important area, as well.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question comes to us from Deger Akal with Deutsche Welle’s Turkish Service.  She asks:  “There are reports regarding increasing – the increasing possibility of a new round of escalation and military confrontation between the Assad regime and Turkey.  Turkey has requested support from NATO, and also bilateral military support from the U.S.  What kind of support has Turkey received?”

Ambassador Hutchison:  Yes, we are very much on Turkey’s side against the aggression that they are facing.  And we know that the Russians are backing the Syrian regime, and that’s a tough thing for Turkey.  And we hope that Turkey will be able to push back on the Syrian aggression that’s backed by Russia that has already killed many Turkish soldiers.  

And we hope that we will be able to put together the package that would help Turkey, and we hope that Turkey will also not put the Russian missile defense system in their country that is deterring some of the capabilities that we would be able to give them to fight against the Syrian aggression.

We do want the area in Idlib, where the civilians are really trapped, to be protected, and I think the Turkish soldiers agree with that; they’re trying to do it.  The Assad regime is killing innocent people, innocent civilians, and they’re doing it with Russian help, and that is untenable.  So we hope that the Turks, because they’re being the victims of Russian-Syrian aggression, will take out the missile defense system that is in the middle of Ankara and let us have the freedom to help them completely to protect those innocent civilians in Syria.  And then, of course, we hope that the final result in Syria is the ability for the Syrians to control their own destiny through a reform process that would allow them a voice in their new government.

Moderator:  Unfortunately, that is all the time that we have for questions today.  Ambassador Hutchison, do you have any closing remarks that you would like to offer?

Ambassador Hutchison:  Well, I thank you for all the questions that have come in.  We so appreciate the alliance and our partners, and having the ministerial tomorrow, which is going to be virtual for the first time.  We don’t like that because we really like to be able to get together and talk bilaterally as well as in NATO about our common risks and deterrence efforts, and, of course, now with this pandemic we can’t really get together in person.  So we’re doing a virtual ministerial where we are going to have good results, we believe, because the discussion will be had the same as if they were there together, and we think that the absolute focus on our publics right now, on the coronavirus, and the expansion of our efforts in Iraq to allow those people to have their own government, to have new elections and make sure that ISIS doesn’t rise again in Iraq, and to also make sure that the Iranian militias don’t come into Iraq and sow malign influence there, and we are going to try to keep on track with Afghanistan so that the peace talks that would be an Afghan-led peace agreement so that the people can live together in harmony in Afghanistan will stay on course.

So, all of those things.  It’s a big agenda, but we’re not losing our focus at the same time that we are trying to protect our people from travel and society that would cause this pandemic to get worse.

Moderator:  Thank you so much, Ambassador Hutchison, for taking the time to —

Ambassador Hutchison:  Thank you.

Moderator:  — be here and to speak with us today, and thank you to all of our journalists who joined us online.  We’re really sorry – there are so many good questions, we’re very sorry that we couldn’t get to all of your questions.  We do hope that you’ll join us in a future briefing.  We will send out broadcast links to the broadcast-quality files shortly, and we will also circulate a transcript for all of you to use.  Again, thanks so much and we – stay safe out there, stay healthy, and we hope that you can join us in a future briefing.

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