In nominating former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison to be America’s next ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), President Trump tapped a top-notch stateswoman to serve in an important diplomatic post. By any objective forecast, Senator Hutchison’s confirmation should proceed smoothly. She is a distinguished politician who served in the U.S. Senate for twenty years, during which time she sat on both the Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee.
But there is at least one reason why senators should take their time with Senator Hutchison’s confirmation: The American people and their allies abroad need clarity on President Trump’s NATO policy—and Senator Hutchison’s confirmation offers the best near-term opportunity to obtain that.
The Constitution provides Congress with few better opportunities to define and shape foreign policy than the Senate confirmation process. Nominees to ambassadorial posts must first obtain the Senate’s advice and consent before their appointments take effect. That process can move swiftly for someone with Senator Hutchison’s record, but other considerations also play a role. Here, those considerations include the heightened importance of America’s NATO ambassador given recent Russian hostilities, as well as President Trump’s incoherent NATO policy.
Forged in the early years of the post-World War II world order, NATO served as the West’s bulwark against Russian aggression throughout the Cold War. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many observers understandably questioned whether time had rendered NATO obsolete. The alliance, however, proved to be a useful guarantor of freedom and security for its members even without the Soviet Union as its principal adversary. Indeed, NATO’s collective defense covenant—commonly referred to as the “Article 5” commitment—provided a strong foundation for political cooperation among NATO members.
Any lingering doubts about NATO’s continued relevance should be put to rest in light of Russia’s jingoistic return to the world stage after a decade of wandering in the geopolitical wilderness. Since ascending to power in 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin has aggressively pursued Russia’s perceived interests both regionally and globally. And Russia’s high-risk, high-reward policies have cost the United States and its interests dearly. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its blatant meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election are but two of the most egregious examples of Russia’s belligerence. Hence, recent history has shown NATO to be an important safeguard against a clear and present danger posed by Russia.
Unfortunately, President Trump has offered scant detail on his policy toward NATO. And what information the administration has provided is vague, incomplete, and often contradicts earlier—and sometimes even contemporaneous—statements. As a candidate, President Trump excoriated NATO, thereby eliciting acclaim from the nationalistic wing of his base. As president, however, Trump has softened his views, albeit without demonstrating a nuanced understanding of NATO’s history, membership, and mission. Indeed, the president recently proclaimed that NATO is “no longer obsolete” without elucidating why, when, and how the alliance took on new value and purpose in his mind.
Individually, any one of President Trump’s bizarre statements about NATO could be written off as a misinformed gaffe. But collectively, they suggest that the president is wholly untethered to an adequate understanding of a crucial pillar of America’s national security policy. And that, coupled with the pall of investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian government, demands swift attention by senators with the power to take a hard look at the administration’s heretofore haphazard NATO policy.
Therefore, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—which will presumably consider Senator Hutchison’s nomination in the coming weeks—should obtain clarification on at least three fundamental issues: First, senators should demand a clear and complete explanation of the Trump Administration’s NATO policy, including the president’s position on honoring America’s Article 5 commitments. Going back to President Truman, all of President Trump’s predecessors have affirmed America’s commitment to its NATO allies; any departure from that policy should require a convincing explanation.
Second, senators should categorically ascertain which entity within the U.S. government authoritatively speaks on U.S. policy vis-à-vis NATO. Normally, the president’s word is final on such delicate matters of statecraft. Yet, time and again, President Trump has confused, if not outright contradicted, his own administration’s messaging on matters of policy. Tweets have consequences, so senators should ascertain whether future midnight Twitter rants will constitute an official break from established doctrine.
Finally, senators should advise Senator Hutchison on America’s proper posture toward NATO and inquire where the would-be ambassador stands on the question of what constitutes a presidential action in contravention of America’s national interests. The Senate would be remiss if it failed to establish an ethical baseline for such an important ambassadorial assignment.
Americans, not to mention America’s allies, deserve to know how the president views America’s most important institutional fortification against Russian hostility. The Senate should see that they get it.