WASHINGTON ― When world leaders descend on Belgium in July for the biannual NATO summit, there is one inevitability: They will be asked, over and over, about whether they will reach the alliance target goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.
The woman charged with the day-to-day mission of carrying that message, as well as other American priorities, is Kay Bailey Hutchison, the former U.S. senator from Texas and now the Trump administration’s ambassador to NATO. Hutchison sat down with Defense News during a May visit to Washington to talk about the upcoming summit.
Should we expect the July summit to be more of a “consolidation” summit as opposed to the 2014 summit, which was seen as more transformative?
I think it is a summit in which we will move forward in several important arenas. One is the new national command structure. I think that is an adaptation that is going to have very large consequences for a better, more efficient operation that can assess the risks better and also address them and increase where we need to increase our assets. I think we’ve come an enormously long way in a very short time since 2014, but I think the two major areas where we are increasing our strategies and our efforts are deterrence of Russia and counterterrorism, and I think our deliverables, will be quite important. So yes, we will talk about our success and what we’ve accomplished, but I think it’s more than a consolidation ― I think it is a next step forward.
NATO will use the summit to finalize plans for two new command structures, one focused on the Atlantic and one focused on military mobility. Do you think that other new commands are needed for the alliance?
Right now, that’s what’s called for in the new national command structure. And I think that’s filling two places where we’re seeing activity of greater risk that we need to address. I don’t, in that, along with the Allied Command Transformation, which is our forward-thinking command, I don’t see right now that we haven’t filled those gaps. This is our new command structure, so I think we will adapt as needed, but right now I think we’re in a good position.
In February you were very outspoken about concerns with the European Union’s Permanent Structured Cooperation initiative on defense and security, warning it could be “protectionist” against American companies. Have those concerns mellowed with time?
I think it is still a very new concept. It only was announced last fall. So we’re working very hard to make sure that we are on the same page, that our priorities are met, that PESCO and the EU defense capabilities are complementary. And military mobility, of course, is something that the EU is uniquely capable of doing because just going through the borders takes so much time if you don’t have an expedited capability. So I think it is our first incubator test of this cooperation.
I think PESCO itself is the administrative procedure, are not yet locked in, and I think that is going to be a very important signal about whether PESCO is going to open with a level playing field for American companies to be treated the same way a European country or an allied country is treated in a defense contract here. That’s a very important part. Those procedures have not yet been adopted, so I think it will be important to continue to work with them to try and assure that our expectations are that we will have a cooperative, new effort that we’ll all be stronger for going forward. We just don’t know yet.
But it’s safe to say those conversations are ongoing?
President Donald Trump has been clear that he wants to see more countries meeting the recommended 2 percent of gross domestic product spent on defense. A number of countries have pledged to hit that by 2024. Is that fast enough for the U.S., and is there a way to speed that process up?
I think that’s what everyone has committed to do. You know, if you say we’re going to be at this level by 2024, that’s not that far away. And if you put in an order for an airplane today, you’re not going to start getting the first airplane for at least three to four years, and the same would be for a missile defense system or whatever. So you can’t do anything very much in this area without a timeline that is pretty forward thinking. So I think what we’re asking for is the plans to reach that level in 2024, which means you have to start thinking about what you’re going to procure ― airplanes or tanks or arms or armaments ― just the planning is what we’re asking for in the 2 percent. And I think it is very important that the countries are thinking about it, our allies, because that is what is going to provide the capability to deter the risks that we face.
But are you satisfied with the countries saying they will hit 2 percent by 2024?
Well, half is not 100 percent, and we’d like to see more planning, more thoughtfulness. We still have time before the summit, and I think those commitments have been made, and we need to assure that everyone is planning, that they are doing what they committed to do. And that’s the pressure that the president is trying to put on.
Does the open-door policy need to be changed to let in countries like Ukraine and Georgia?
I think we need to look at each individual case according to where that country is. And I think that we’re working very hard in that direction, and I think people know which countries are aspiring. We’re giving all the help that they can for them to know that the door is open, that we want to be supportive of them. But I think you just have to take each individual case on its merits, where it stands, where it sits, and I think we’re doing that. It’s just hard to quantify each one.
But I think, by and large, every one of us [allies] wants to have more members that are in our sphere because we don’t want them to go into the Russian sphere and cause more problems and more disruptions.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.