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Brink delights foreign policy consensus, sails through confirmation hearing

Biden’s nominee for Ukraine ambassador hit all the right notes but left questions about Washington's diplomatic role in ending the war.

Analysis | Europe

Any lingering doubt as to whether Russia’s illegal and lamentable invasion of Ukraine has strengthened the hold that the bipartisan foreign policy consensus holds over Washington can be safely put to rest in light of Bridget Brink’s confirmation hearing Tuesday to head the U.S. diplomatic mission to Ukraine. 

For years, Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings have been marked by a kind of unanimity born of a shared set of assumptions regarding Washington's right, duty, and ability to reshape the world in America’s self-image.

Brink’s confirmation hearing bore the hallmark of what one has come to expect of the committee, now led by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), namely, precious little debate on anything of actual substance, such as the details of the $40 billion Ukraine aid package being finalized by Congress. As Biden's nominee for U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Brink herself was the object of fulsome praise from senators, with Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich) at one point calling her “an extraordinary woman.”

Despite 25 years of experience in the foreign service, including several postings in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, her position today, however, is hardly “extraordinary.” In fact, not much was said about the approach Brink is likely to bring with her to Ukraine beyond what we already know about administration policy. She wants to get U.S. weapons to President Zelensky as fast as possible, investigate Russian war crimes, and continue to pressure the international community to sanction Russia, including a full ban on oil and gas imports.

Current and former government officials I have spoken to identify her as a protege of undersecretary of state for political affairs, Victoria Nuland, perhaps the State Department’s premier Russia expert, and among the most forceful and skilled advocates for U.S. global hegemony.

Brink’s opening statement showed that she is — if nothing else, representative of the foreign policy uni-party, expressing pride in Washington’s role of fostering “reforms in young democracies on the edge of Europe.” Brink also pledged to work with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “to continue our commitment to a sovereign, democratic, and independent Ukraine, free to choose its own future.”

Paraphrasing President Biden, Brink proclaimed that “in this battle between democracy and autocracy, between freedom and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force, freedom must prevail. Ukraine must prevail.”

In response to a question by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Brink noted that having served in the Balkans during a period of protracted conflicts, she welcomes working with the U.S. military officials coordinating aid to Ukraine. Conspicuously missing from these pledges of wartime support was any mention of diplomacy from the career diplomat.

But such a stance is now de rigueur among the diplomatic corps. As a former high-ranking intelligence official told me recently, “As far as I can tell, the State Department, which would normally be the locus of advocacy for a diplomatic solution to this sort of situation, doesn’t appear to be actively pushing for that position at all. Instead, what you hear from senior State Department officials are things like ‘we intend to win’.” The problem with this approach, as the official pointed out, “is that it surrenders agency on the part of the U.S. You mean, we don’t get a call on whether a war that endangers the American people comes to an early end? That is not a situation that I think actually serves the American national interest.”

Interestingly, Brink considers rebuilding Ukraine as part of her forthcoming responsibilities. This is going to be quite a task, not only because of the destruction caused by the Russian military, but because of the massive amounts of ordnance flooding into the country. Is the Biden administration and its high-ranking emissaries like Brink at all worried that, in the process of prolonging the war with these massive aid packages, we are inadvertently turning Ukraine into an international black market arms bazaar?

No such concerns were broached at today’s hearing. If anything, the hearing showed that there is little in the way of innovative or outside-the-box thinking taking place either in the administration or on Capitol Hill. 

But if we have any chance at staying out of the conflict for much longer, diplomacy will at some point have to figure into the mix of policy options available to the President. 

After making an introduction, Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) clasps hands with Bridget Brink, nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, at her Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., May 10, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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