One is a lifelong Republican, a Donald Trump appointee, living abroad for the first time, whose only language is English — with a strong Texas twang.
The other is a diehard Democrat, veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations, fluent Russian speaker, and career expert on non-proliferation.
These two women are the most senior Americans at NATO headquarters: Trump’s ambassador, the Texan Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller, the Obamaite who arrived long before last year’s presidential election. By personality, portfolio and past experience, they represent competing American visions for the transatlantic relationship. One seems disruptive, the other traditional.
It’s not clear which approach will carry the day at the club that joins America most closely with Europe — or for U.S. foreign policy in general — but at NATO officials and diplomats are lookin to this unlikely pair for clues. They have little else to go on. The 68-year-old alliance is confronted with a new, unpredictable leader in the White House, who declared NATO “obsolete” on more than one occasion, and with a fast-changing global security environment.
Hutchison, a 74-year-old widow and former senator, hardly fits the part of revolutionary. In her time in the Senate, she made her mark in military matters, visiting troops overseas and directing resources to bases in her giant home state. But she’s also not the typical top American diplomat at NATO who usually comes with deep “Atlanticist” credentials. Echoing what Trump said later on in his campaign for president, Hutchison as senator criticized NATO allies for starving their defense budgets and she fought for U.S. troops to come home from Europe.
“Trump not being popular in Europe, hers is almost by definition a defensive, cajoling task” — Former official close to NATO on Kay Bailey Hutchison
Her first trip since taking up her post in Brussels was to visit the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. Her first policy efforts at headquarters have been to lobby allies to meet a request by Trump for more troops for the mission, called Operation Resolute Support. So, in a sense, America first.
In the same suite as NATO secretary-general’s office, on the same floor as the U.S. mission in a neighboring wing of the alliance headquarters on Boulevard Leopold III is Gottemoeller. The 64-year-old wife of a retired diplomat is a Washington foreign policy operator, someone who in the current climate might be labelled a representative of the “deep state.” She was put forward by Obama to fill the No. 2 job last year.
At the State Department and the White House under President Bill Clinton, Gottemoeller brokered and monitored arms control treaties. Her work reflects a belief in deterrence and collective defense, precisely what Trump called into question earlier this year by hemming and hawing about his support for NATO’s Article 5 commitment that an attack on one ally is an attack on all 29. Gottemoeller’s approach is the familiar one at NATO.
“Kay Bailey Hutchison has the unenviable task of both making and representing a policy of the Trump administration,” said a former official close to NATO. “Trump not being popular in Europe, hers is almost by definition a defensive, cajoling task.”
By contrast, this official continued, Gottemoeller is an American who works for NATO. Trump tried to get her fired before he took office, but doesn’t have that power. “That automatically puts her in a happier relationship with the allies,” this person said.
Gottemoeller’s style makes consensus the priority. She played this role last month, leading a group of German lawmakers to visit German troops at a base in Turkey. The Turks had blocked visits by German delegations in the wake of tensions over numerous issues between Berlin and Ankara.
Saving old NATO
These women have to grapple with unprecedented security challenges before NATO. There are renewed fears of nuclear Armageddon amid saber-rattling in North Korea and tensions with Iran. Russia is an aggressive presence on the alliance’s eastern frontier and newly a dominant player in the Middle East. There are questions on whether either Hutchison or Gottemoeller has precisely the right skill set for this new environment.
In person as well as in her interactions with colleagues, Gottemoeller tries to sound reassuring about these new threats and, at least in an interview without uttering the name Trump, the political ructions in Washington that puzzle and worry the Europeans.
She told POLITICO that allies often complain about unpredictability in Washington, and need to respect the inevitable change that comes with election cycles.
“I guess that is in some ways the role of the global power, to have a certain amount of predictability,” she said, “At the present moment it is, I will say, a unique situation in that there are so many changes in how Washington is doing business. But that’s entirely the prerogative of [the administration]. And that’s in some ways the way our system works, is to have these cycles from one president to the next.”
Europeans who deal with her note that Gottemoeller often falls back on a bipolar, cold-warrior (others might say realpolitik) conception of transatlantic security.
Gottemoeller’s résumé looks tailor-made for the upper echelons of NATO leadership. She was the top official for Russia policy in President Bill Clinton’s White House in 1993-94. She later served as Obama’s top diplomat for arms control and negotiated the New Start Treaty with the Kremlin and was peripherally involved in the Iran deal. A year after her arrival at NATO, North Korea is threatening a nuclear strike, and Trump has asked Congress to put new restrictions on the Iran deal.
Europeans who deal with her note that Gottemoeller often falls back on a bipolar, cold-warrior (others might say realpolitik) conception of transatlantic security, in which the U.S. and Russia remain the primary actors. Trump came into office promising to improve relations with Moscow, though allegations of election meddling have forestalled any warming.
Colleagues said that can make Gottemoeller less inclined toward dialogue with Moscow than some European allies. “She understands Russia, but she always sort of makes sure to keep Russia at bay,” said one official who has watched her work at NATO. “There is a hawkish thing about this deterrence. She’s not at all a dove.”
In the interview, Gottemoeller acknowledged that her expertise in brokering arms treaties had limited application to some new threats. “With an arms control treaty, you’ve got hardware,” she said. “You’re cutting up a missile and you’re making sure it’s eliminated. And then you take that off the database. So you have things you can verify, monitor, notify.”
“If you’re talking about what’s going on in cyberspace or what’s going on in the information space, it’s much more difficult,” she continued, adding, “People ask me all the time about cyber arms control, and I say it just doesn’t make sense.”
But her decades working on deterrence policy allow her to maintain a measure of calm in the current turbulence buffeting transatlantic relations and she expressed confidence that NATO was pursuing the right course.
“My first trip to Europe was in 1985, when I was a young research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and allies at that point were rolling their eyes and wringing their hands because they couldn’t account for unpredictable actions that Washington was taking,” she said.
“I take a long view,” she added. “Yes, there have been difficult times before, and this alliance has weathered them, and come out the other side … in each case stronger.”
In her current role as deputy secretary-general, Gottemoeller on any given day is as likely to talk about the future role of artificial intelligence in warfare, or the potential application of new alternative energy sources in equipping and sustaining military deployments, as she is to talk about nonproliferation issues, vis-à-vis Russia or North Korea.
Ambassador’s learning curve
Despite the hard campaign talk and concerns over America’s commitment to NATO, Trump is now solidly behind the alliance — having declared it “no longer obsolete” — as long as allies get the message from Washington. Hutchison is bringing a blunt one: Spend more on defense and contribute more to NATO missions, or risk losing America’s support.
Some allies, especially Germany, have bristled at these demands, which have sometimes been cast as a debt “owed” to the U.S. Hutchison insists the president’s pressure has already yielded results.
“Allies are stepping up,” she said in a statement to POLITICO. “We have seen progress in meeting the pledge to move toward spending 2 percent of GDP on defense and 20 percent on defense modernization by 2024. We have seen many allies speed up their meeting of the pledge.”
After months of being rattled by Trump’s tweets, some NATO allies were unsettled by Hutchison’s own first tweet upon arriving in Brussels in August, in which she emphasized that she would “carry out” Trump’s priorities rather than a broader, more customary message of unity among allies.
A decade older than Gottemoeller and new to Europe, Hutschison is slowly picking up the lingo, but the learning curve is evident.
As a senator, Hutchison took critical positions on NATO. “I have spoken on the floor many times about my concerns for maintaining such a large military presence in Europe,” she said in a speech in the Senate in June 2011. “And I will continue to fight for spending cuts to a largely unnecessary and expensive U.S. military presence on the European continent.”
In the same speech, Hutchison dressed down NATO allies both for insufficient financial contributions to the alliance, and for not carrying more of the military burden for NATO operations in Libya 2011, when the alliance launched a bombing campaign in the name of protecting civilians protesting as part of the Arab spring. The operation eventually led to the killing of the Libyan leader, Muamar Qaddafi and infuriated the Kremlin.
“Why is it that NATO nations are unwilling and unable to effectively operate against a weak and isolated nation such as Libya without significant military contributions from the United States?” she asked.
In her statement to POLITICO, Hutchison said that in 2011 it was impossible to predict today’s circumstances. “It was a very different time and was before the Russian build up we are facing now since their illegal annexation of Crimea and continued fighting in Ukraine,” she said.
Yet in the current context, she defended the redeployment of forces as strategically important. “This did not represent our backing away from supporting Europe or NATO, but rather pushed for a model of flexible and quick deployments directly where needed,” she said.
In an interview, Hutchison said the U.S. isn’t a threat to any country, least of all Russia. “The great thing about America is we are not a country that ever tries to take over another country, or conquer a people — we never have and we never will,” she said. “Perhaps they are nervous about something, and if they are it might be because they are planning to do something and we are deterring it.”
A decade older than Gottemoeller and new to Europe, Hutschison is slowly picking up the lingo, but the learning curve is evident. On Tuesday, during visit to Chievres Air Base in Belgium, Hutchison twice referred incorrectly to an agreement on military exercises, calling it the Versailles document instead of the Vienna document in a televised briefing.
“No one is born as a transatlanticist,” one colleague said.