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Former Senator Hutchison confirmed as US envoy to NATO

Teri Schultz
August 28, 2017

The Trump Administration has finally installed its ambassador to NATO, former US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. There had been some concern Trump wouldn't fill the position at all, as a snub to the alliance.

Kay Bailey Hutchison
Image: Getty Images/M. Wilson

The long-serving senator is a known entity, which is expected to be reassuring to an alliance that has dealt with President Donald Trump's hot and cold assessments of NATO over the last several months. 

Trump: NATO no longer obsolete

With a Senate career spanning two decades, Hutchison served on many committees related to military and foreign policy, rising to become one of the top five Republicans in the Senate.  The New York Times in 2008 named her as the one of the women most likely to become the first female US president.  She resigned to run for Texas governor in 2010 but lost, serving three more years as a senator.

With no dramatic views on NATO, nor conflicts with the White House, and with enthusiastic bipartisan support from her former congressional colleagues, Hutchison sailed through her confirmation process in July. 

She portrayed herself as a strong supporter of NATO and its shared values. "This bond that unites us must be reinforced," she told former colleagues. "Those values underscore why we need to remain firm in dealing with Russian aggression, balancing an alliance commitment to strong deterrence with political dialogue, foremost on issues like the situation in Ukraine. I want – I think all NATO allies want – a constructive relationship between NATO and Russia, but there can be no return to 'business as usual' between NATO and Russia as long as Russia fails to live up to the deal it signed in Minsk and continues to ignore basic norms of international law and responsible international behavior."

Uncontroversial appointment 

Tomas Valasek, director of the Brussels-based think tank Carnegie Europe, and former Slovakian ambassador to NATO, believes Hutchison is a solid choice. "She has, in the past, spoken out quite clearly in favor of continued U.S. presence in Europe," Valasek told DW. "From what we know about her, she is very much a Republican traditionalist with a skeptical view of Russia, very strongly pro-military and pro-alliances." He added that, despite being appointed by a president with mercurial positions on NATO's value, someone with Hutchison's wealth of policy experience is unlikely to fundamentally change positions this late in a career.

Hutchison points out herself that she has long called on European allies to spend more of their GDP on defense, something that puts her squarely in line with Trump on this issue.

Valasek says he never believed the rumors that Trump would leave the NATO position unfilled for a long period of time. "It just never really added up to me because if you have a strongly held view on the alliance, would you not want to have someone in the alliance to communicate that view?" he said. "If you don't actually nominate an ambassador you deprive yourself of the opportunity to make the point you want to make."

Donald Trump in Belgien beim NATO Gipfel
US President Donald Trump's initial animosity toward NATO raised concerns he'd leave the US mission without an ambassador for an extended period. The appointment of a well-known Texas senator who's expressed support for US engagement in Europe will be a relief for the alliance.Image: Reuters/J.Ernst

'At least the position has been filled'

Ian Bond, foreign policy director at the London-based think tank, the Center for European Reform, takes a more critical view of Trump's overall staffing policy when it comes to diplomacy. While acknowledging he doesn't know Hutchison's record in depth, he says the most important point is that the job is being filled at all and by someone with a long record in public policy.

Hutchison also openly sought guidance from her predecessor, retired army lieutenant general Doug Lute, who had been intimately involved with policymaking in the George W. Bush National Security Council, before being appointed to NATO by Barack Obama. 

Bond takes issue with the fact that Trump has not filled other ambassadorial and State Department positions that are arguably more critical at present than NATO.  He mentions South Korea in particular, a key diplomatic hub in the current tensions with Pyongyang. "It's damaging in a variety of ways," Bond told DW. "It sends a message that basically says, I'm not really interested. Even with the best will in the world, if you are operating with a chargé d'affaires you don't get the sort of constant high-level access that you would expect if you were talking with the American ambassador."

With so many global crises at the moment, Bond suggested, "it makes a huge difference having, particularly in the important posts, somebody who at least theoretically can pick up the phone to people in the White House and say that something serious is happening."

Now, at least, one of those people is in Brussels.  The US missions to Belgium and the European Union still await their ambassadors.