Pilgrim in an Unholy Land: Ambassador Jon Huntsman

Tom Warwick

“Oh my God…It’s you”

-Tom when he saw Jon Huntsman in a DC elevator


Roughly six months ago, while President Trump was still putting together his new administration, I wrote an article about the rumours surrounding the possibility of the President-elect nominating Mitt Romney to be the new Secretary of State. In the article, I discussed the need for experienced and capable people to pinch their collective noses and join the Trump administration in order to guarantee that our government continued to function. Keeping this in mind, you could imagine my excitement when it was announced that Former Governor and 2012 Presidential Candidate Jon Huntsman would be the next Ambassador to Russia. Given the rising importance of this position, and my personal mancrush on the former Governor, we have decided to put together a brief profile on Trump’s new man in Moscow.


Jon Huntsman has a background that is a bit different from most politicians. Born in California, Huntsman was one of nine children. He would go on to drop out of high school in order to pursue a musical career as the keyboard player in his rock band Wizard. Huntsman would eventually obtain a G.E.D. and graduate from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in international politics. As a practicing Mormon, Huntsman served as a missionary in Taiwan for two years where he learned how to speak fluent Mandarin. Huntsman would began his political career as a staff assistant to President Ronald Reagan, and would go on to hold a series of diplomatic positions in the administrations of three other Presidents.  Under George H.W. Bush, Huntsman served as the ambassador to Singapore and later deputy assistant secretary of commerce for Asia. In the George W. Bush administration, Huntsman would serve as US trade ambassador.


In 2004, Jon Huntsman ran for and was elected Governor of Utah. As Governor, Huntsman led from the middle of the road working with Republicans and Democrats to advance the state forward. In the depths of an economic recession, Huntsman oversaw major tax and health care reforms as well as an initiative to improve the state’s public education system. In just under five years he led the state to first in the nation in job growth and under his time in office the Pew Center named Utah the “best managed state in America.” When Huntsman left office in 2009 he had an approval rating of above eighty percent.


In 2009, Huntsman resigned his position as Governor of Utah to serve as President Obama’s ambassador to China. The decision to offer the position to Huntsman was seen as many to be a strategic political move on the part of the Obama administration. At the time Huntsman was seen as a leading candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination and a significant challenge to a second Obama term. In a move credited to David Axelrod, Huntsman was offered the position as a way to get him out of the country and away from the national spotlight. Despite the political downside, Huntsman accepted, later saying: “[When asked to] serve America, serve. I was, by a president of a different political party. But in the end, while we might not all be of one party, we are all part of one nation.” In China, Huntsman would impress his host nation with his “knowledge of their culture; fluency in Mandarin; and by his riding a bicycle to meetings, rather than travelling by motorcade.”  In 2011, Huntsman did exactly what Axelrod and the Obama Administration were afraid he would. He resigned his position and announced that he would be running for President. Unfortunately the “take him out of the spotlight” strategy, combined with the fact that another good-looking moderate Republican with a large mormon family had mostly locked up Huntsman’s key demographic, meant that Huntsman’s campaign would last all of six months.


While Huntsman stepped back from the political scene after his failed Presidential run, he would stay involved on the nerdy-wonky side of the issues. Huntsman became chairman of the bipartisan foreign policy think tank, the Atlantic Council.  In 2016, while not running for President himself, Huntsman adopted a love-hate relationship with Donald Trump.  After Trump became the prospective nominee, Huntsman announced, much to my disappointment, that he would endorse him. Then, in October when a certain infamous tape was released, Huntsman reversed course and called on Trump to drop out of the race.  The fact that Huntsman did this made it especially surprising when, back in March, Trump administration officials announced that the President was considering making Huntsman the ambassador to Russia. After four months of making that specific job increasingly undesirable, Trump officially announced his intentions to nominate Huntsman.    


There is little doubt that Jon Huntsman is qualified to serve as the Ambassador to Russia; not only has he served as an American representative abroad twice, he has done it in an equally isolated and authoritarian country.  The real question is why Huntsman would want to willingly walk into the political quagmire that is Trump-Russia-Putin relationship. Putting the 2016 election aside for the moment, the laundry list of issues that the United States and Russia have to work out is as long as it has been since the Cold War.  Huntsman will be expected to navigate rising tensions in Syria, a stalemate in Crimea, and increased aggression in Eastern Europe, all issues that the White House has either not released an official position on or where an “official” position has been undermined by a tweet. This is a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the Kremlin, and could effectively undercut any credibility Huntsman has before he even steps foot in the country.  


Then there is that little problem of  whether or not the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian Government to interfere in the 2016 election.  While I will go much more in depth into this issue in the next installation of our “Bear in the Woods” series, for Huntsman it means not only tying his considerable credibility and political future to an administration under investigation,  but agreeing to be their official representative to those they are accused of colluding with. It’s like Henry Kissinger picking up a part time job as a bellboy in the Watergate Hotel.  If it turns out that there was some kind of impeachable offence that took place, Huntsman might have a hard time separating himself from it.


Which begs the question, why is Huntsman agreeing to do this? While my only personal interaction with the Governor lasted about 30 seconds, his past actions tell us that regardless of party or President, when asked to serve his country, Huntsman answers the call.  In 2008, when he was seen as a leading candidate to challenge President Obama, Huntsman put his own self interest aside to be Ambassador to China. This decision eventually came back to hurt his chances in 2012, but Huntsman continued to say he would make the same decision again. It is possible that the same logic is propelling this most recent move.  Regardless of motivation, it is hard to think of a more qualified individual for the position. As I said back in January, while there is a real concern of “normalizing” Trump and his rhetoric, I believe that the larger threat exists in allowing his team to operate unchecked. America continues to need an advocate in this administration. I have no doubt that Jon Huntsman will be this advocate.


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