April 26, 2018: Press Briefing by Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison

Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison

U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO

Pre-Ministerial Press Briefing


April 26, 2018


Ambassador Hutchison:  Good afternoon.  I’m so pleased to be here and we’re really looking forward to a great ministerial on Friday.  I think it is going to be great preparation — it’s also a big goodbye to the last ministerial that we’re going to have in this building.  So we’re looking forward to that.

And let me say also that we had a great breakfast this morning with General Nicholson, our commander in Afghanistan.  So we had a report on the status there that was very important for the Allies who are participating and are so helpful and strong in our Afghanistan mission for NATO.

So I know that you’ve talked to SecGen [Stoltenberg] and know the subjects that we’re taking up at the Foreign Ministerial, and I will just say that we are very much hoping that we come out with a strong beginning, preparation for the Summit that we’re going to have in July.

With that, I’ll stop and take your questions.

Media:  Julian Barnes, Wall Street Journal.

We have a vote scheduled for Mr. Pompeo at noon today, which means it’s possible he could come.  Presuming he’s confirmed, presuming he comes here, what do you think– do you anticipate any sort of change in the U.S. position on Russia?  Or will there be any recalibration?  And what do you think the other Allies will be anxious to hear from him at this meeting?

Ambassador Hutchison:  Well, let me say that we are all looking forward to the vote and I think that we will know very quickly after the vote happens if we do have our new Secretary of State.

And I think if you look back to the hearing that he had in the Senate, you’re going to see that he is very strong for the positions that America holds.  I have worked with Director Pompeo; when I was in the Senate, he was in the House.  He is strong, he’s smart, he’s really good on foreign policy, and he’s also someone that has the respect of Congress because they know him.  So I am very much looking forward to working with him.

His position on Russia is America’s position on Russia.  We are very concerned about Russia’s activities.  Certainly, since Warsaw [Summit], there have been new kinds of attacks by Russia.  Hybrid warfare, cyber warfare.  There have been malign activities that are trying to disable our NATO Alliance.  And we’re not going to let it happen.

America is committed to a strong NATO Alliance and our NATO Allies are also strong on unity and resolve to have an umbrella against Russian aggression, to try to be a leader in counter-terrorism.  Our mission in Afghanistan, where I have been twice in the last six months, is one that has a chance to stop terrorism where it is, protect all of our people, and to also have a country that we can leave that will be able to function with human rights and dignity and rule of law and good government.

So I don’t speak for Secretary Pompeo – actually, Director Pompeo right now – at all, but I think he was very clear in his testimony before the Senate for his confirmation where he stands.

Media:  Ambassador, a ten-second follow-up.  Do you think a NATO-Russia Council meeting is possible before the Summit?  From your view, is it advisable?

Ambassador Hutchison:  I think a NATO-Russia Council, if Russia will come to the table and we will have an open discussion that is productive, I would support it.  America will support a NATO-Russia Council, not just for the sake of sitting down, but for actually talking about what we are concerned about, and hearing what they are concerned about.  It has to be a two-way street.  But I think dialogue in the middle of an increase in bad behavior is a good thing.

And I think that it is known that General Gerasimov met with General Scaparrotti, that it was productive, that it was – certainly, there were disagreements but it was a civilized disagreement, and there were areas that could be explored.  And we have all said that mil-to-mil, military-to-military, constructive conversations and the ability to pick up the phone and call when there is an adversarial relationship to assure that there aren’t mistakes made or miscommunications that would cause something to escalate.

So I think everyone is supportive of the military-to-military capabilities that we have between NATO and Russia, and also the NATO-Russia Council, if it is going to be productive, could be another way to address the concerns that we have.

Media:  Thank you.  UNIAN, Irina Somer.

Ambassador, SecGen just said that ministers will discuss Ukraine’s aspirations to become a member of the Alliance.  What is your expectation of this?  And a second question, do you expect that ministers also will discuss the issue of Hungary blocking the NATO-Ukraine Commission?  Thank you.

Ambassador Hutchison:  We very much hope for a NATO-Ukraine Commission.  That is something that we are working on most certainly.

And I didn’t get your first question about Ukraine.  What was that?

Media:  SecGen Stoltenberg said that during tomorrow’s meeting, ministers will discuss Ukrainian aspiration to become a member of NATO.  What is your expectation?

Ambassador Hutchison:  Aspirations to NATO.  Yes.  We support Ukraine’s aspiration to NATO. I was in Ukraine just the week before last and had a very good meeting with the President, with the Vice Minister, and with several members of the parliament.  I think there is, especially I have to say, I was encouraged by the younger members of parliament who had been at Maidan, who had been in the streets protesting for more alliance with Europeans and not to be part of Russia.  They’re there and they’re fighting for the reforms, and I think they’re making good progress in the reforms.

They do have a way to go.  They have to assure that there are courts, independent courts; rule of law; anti-corruption laws; a civilian control of the military.  They know that these are the tenets of NATO membership, and they must make progress in those areas, and we will be there to help them make progress in those areas.

Media:  Brooks Tigner, Jane’s Defence.

Ambassador, if the U.S. pulls out of the Iranian nuclear deal, as indications seem to suggest, is there anything for a plan B in Washington?

Ambassador Hutchison:  Plan B.  We would hope that there would be a capability to bring Iran to the table on the ballistic missile testing, on the malign activity, support for terrorist organizations in the Middle East, that are very destabilizing.  Those are the areas on which the French President and President Trump agree: that we need to have more behavior changes in Iran on those points.

I think that if we can get some help from France and Germany, obviously Chancellor Merkel will be in Washington tomorrow as well.  Help with the signators to that agreement, beyond ourselves, that would say to Iran, this kind of behavior is not conducive to economic activity which many of these countries have with Iran.

So we are looking to our European Allies to be more proactive in seeing a better result from Iran’s destabilizing influence in the Middle East and I think that is the crux of what we are looking for.

Media:  Good morning, Ambassador.  Riccardo Fraddosio from Italy.

During the last elections, the two parties gained the upper hand, and they both have expressed some critical views towards NATO.  I’m just wondering if, in the U.S., is there any concern about Italy’s commitment to the Alliance?  Thank you.

Ambassador Hutchison:  I hope certainly that Italy will stay the strong member of NATO that it is.  We know that there are domestic politics in all of our countries, and we understand that those have to be worked through.

I have heard nothing from even the spokespeople for where Italy is now, in this flux period, that would indicate any less emphasis on its NATO membership.  And I will also say that we value Italy; in particular, they are a framework nation in Afghanistan.  The Italian Ambassador here went with me to Afghanistan just at the end of February.  They’re doing a great job there.

We value their membership and value their contribution and I hope that the Italian people will also recognize the importance of the Alliance in their interest, to have this security umbrella.

I would also point out that one of the new priority focuses of NATO is south.  It is shoring up the south in our overall defense.  That was something Italy asked for – Spain also, and Turkey as well.  All of those countries that are members of NATO that are from the south have urged NATO to focus more influence and more resources in the south, and NATO said yes.  Unanimously.  Our support was firm, and so was every other member of NATO, even those who are not near the south.

So I hope the Italian people know that, and it was their strong leadership that really led the way in NATO for this strengthening in the south.

Media: Daniel Brössler, Süddeutschen Zeitung.

Ambassador, it will not be an issue of this ministerial, but it will probably be an issue of the upcoming Summit: burden sharing.  Is it the impression of the U.S., is it your impression, that Germany is right now doing enough to get closer to the two percent goal?

Ambassador Hutchison:  I think that our leadership in America is urging everyone to come forward in burden sharing and meet the two percent commitment to strive that all of us would be in that position and have a plan toward being in that position by 2024.

So in the overall, there are 13 of our countries that have not yet put forward a plan, of which Germany is one.  And Germany also has a strong position in NATO because they are the largest and have the largest economy of the European countries in NATO.

So we look to them for leadership.  We hope that the conversations that we have had bilaterally with Germany – and with their new government now formed – that they will have a strong commitment to the two percent, the 20 percent and the contributions to NATO.

Having said that, they make very strong contributions in Afghanistan.  They too are a framework nation.  They were with me and Italy and Turkey in our visit to Afghanistan at the end of February.  And we visited the German troops that are in Mazar-e-Sharif and they are doing a wonderful job, and they have committed to increasing their troops as well.

So I think Germany is ready to take the lead, and we are urging them to do that.  It would be a very strong signal that our Alliance is unified and going to the full range of our capabilities.  I think Germany is listening, and I think that we will see a good sign from Germany.

Media: Damon Wake, Agence France-Presse.

Secretary General Stoltenberg this morning indicated that NATO would have some role in the upcoming Afghans elections, this year or next year, in planning security essentially, [inaudible] the same way.  Would you support that?

Ambassador Hutchison:  I think that we, in our meeting this morning with General Nicholson and Ambassador Zimmerman, who is the NATO representative as ambassador into Afghanistan – we had a good discussion about the importance of the election that will be held this fall, and that it be a free and fair election.  We are encouraging a stronger number of people signing up to vote, all of which I think we are looking for ways for our NATO forces to train the Afghan forces to provide the security necessary for the voting places as well as the voting sign-ups.  And as you know, we are very, very concerned that these elections go forward and that they be recognized as legitimate elections.

We have high confidence in President Ghani and the efforts he is making at putting a peace consultation on the table to ask the Taliban to join.  We think that is very important that that continue to go forward.

Of course, we know the Taliban has announced their spring offensive, so we know that they are also looking for activity.  But there are also talks going on with the people involved in the Taliban and also Afghans who in their tribes know people who are in the Taliban.  There is a lot that is going on, on the ground there, that gives us hope that there is a change in the awareness and the attitudes in Afghanistan with these.  Especially the Haqqani Network and the other terrorist activities.

So I think there is a lot of talk and even peace demonstrations that are rising up in the people, without the government trying to encourage that, but coming up from the people who are beginning to see that from 2001 to 2017 that we have gone in primary schools, from zero girls to now 47 percent of the girls in Afghanistan going to schools.  We see an educated armed services now in Afghanistan that is fighting for its own country’s survival.  We see an increase in the life span of people by 15 years, in the 15 years that we have had troops in Afghanistan.

So the people are beginning to see what a quality of life can be, and they’re beginning to stand up and understand that they have something to look forward to.

So I think that there will be a major effort in the elections to have a security force that is trained to protect the validity of those elections.

Media:  [Inaudible].

Ambassador, there is lots of talk about Syria, especially U.S. troops in Syria.  Would you address your colleagues about that presence of your troops in Syria and especially [inaudible].  As you know, there is concern from your Ally Turkey, and they could question about is there any cooperation between you and Turkey after Turkey take control in the Afrin region?  Thank you.

Ambassador Hutchison:  First of all, American troops are in Syria to defeat ISIS.  That is the sole reason that we are in Syria.

We certainly stood against Assad using chemical weapons on his own people.  That was a humanitarian mission that was taken on by our Allies – UK, France and America – together, and it had the worldwide acceptance that we were standing for human rights and dignity in that regard.  But we’re there to wipe out ISIS.

We have had many talks with our Allies in Turkey.  We have no interest in changing the borders of Syria in any way that would affect Turkey.  And we also are very much wanting to continue to fight, and our Allies there have done – have been good Allies in fighting ISIS.

We don’t want to be allied with any terrorist organization, nor do we think that we are.   And we are trying to work with Turkey in a way that continues the fight against ISIS.  We do not want to lose the momentum in that fight.  And Turkey can be helpful in that regard if they will also assure that we’re fighting ISIS and they’re not impeding that fight in any way.

Media: [Inaudible], Sabah Daily.

My question is regarding the U.S., how is the U.S. working with its NATO Ally Turkey regarding the possible confrontation of the YPG that Turkey considers a terrorist organization?

Ambassador Hutchison:  We are working with Turkey to try to, first of all, assure that we’re doing nothing that would be with a terrorist organization – which the Kurds with whom we are fighting ISIS are not.  And secondly, to assure Turkey that they are our Ally, that we have no other reason to be in Afrin or anywhere else in Syria other than to stop ISIS.  And I think the many talks that we have had with Turkey on this subject – I believe that there is now a mutual understanding of our positions and I think that the situation is going to be clear on both sides, what our mission is and what their mission is, and that it would not be a conflict.

Thank you.


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