Jon Huntsman, 56, has accepted President Donald Trump's offer to serve as the next ambassador to Russia.
Huntsman, a Mormon, is married to Mary Kaye Cooper. The two have seven children. Their second-oldest daughter, Abigail Huntsman, is a reporter for Fox News. Their two youngest children were adopted from China and India. Jon Huntsman is a distant relative of Mitt Romney, the former presidential candidate running on the Republican ticket in 2008.
Huntsman’s name had already circulated for secretary of state and, more recently, for deputy secretary. If confirmed by the Senate, the former Utah governor (2005-2009) and Republican presidential candidate (2012) would become one of the highest-profile US ambassadors at the time the bilateral relations deteriorated to their lowest ebb in postwar history. This would be Huntsman’s third ambassadorship after Singapore (1992-1993) and China (2009-2011).
During the presidential race, which ended in November 2016, Huntsman supported Trump after a series of critical remarks against him.
He would have to take the position amid ongoing scandals related to the connections of Trump campaign advisers and US officials with Moscow and the alleged, but never proven, Russia's meddling in the 2016 election. It sounds especially peculiar against the background of the recent scandal related to CIA’s hacking activities!
Unlike President Trump’s previous appointments, Huntsman is a moderate. Being a Republican, he served as an ambassador to China under Democratic President Barack Obama. He can speak Chinese. In his early days Huntsman served as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan for two years and later transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in international politics in 1987.
In February 2011, Huntsman made controversial appearances at the sites of a planned pro-democracy protests («Jasmine Revolution») in Beijing in the wake of the Arab Spring. This behavior prompted accusations of attempting to instigate an anti-government revolution in China. It explains why his posting was so short. It makes spring to mind the behavior of Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Moscow, who openly demonstrated his support for the opposition.
Huntsman’s diplomatic experience is rich enough. Assigned ambassador to Singapore at 32 under George W. Bush Jr., Huntsman was the youngest US ambassador in 100 years. He also has experience of leading a major foreign policy think-tank – in January 2014 Huntsman was named Chairman of the Washington-based Atlantic Council, which is deeply critical of Russia.
One senior administration official said Huntsman was tapped because he is a «brilliant guy», «tough» and understands what Trump wants.
It won’t be the first time Jon Huntsman would have to deal with the country. He was involved in the family's early business dealings in Moscow. His father's company, Huntsman International LLC, a chemical empire, currently has businesses inside Russia (plants creating pigments and polyurethanes). It has been operating in the country since the fall of the Soviet Union. One business is located in Gorlovka which presently is under the control of self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Will it influence his position on the problem of Ukraine? It remains to be seen but the possibility should be taken into account. The other business is in Obninsk, the Russian Kaluga region.
As a presidential candidate in 2012, Huntsman was sharply critical of Obama’s «reset» policy toward Russia. According to him, it was like a «Potemkin village in which we pretend the Kremlin is more of a partner than it is more of a democracy than it is, more respectful of human rights than it is, and less threatening to its neighbors than it is».
At the same time, he called for finding «productive ways to work with Russia». He argued for cooperating with Russia on arms control, Iran and Afghanistan, but said the US-Russian relationship should be viewed «with more objective eyes».
«It’s an excellent choice given his broad foreign policy expertise and strong leadership exhibited here at the Atlantic Council», said Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to Russia who now works for the Atlantic Council.
Huntsman is a seasoned diplomat, businessman and politician who knows how to run a state. Definitely, he has useful experience he’ll need as an ambassador. The question is – why an expert on China? Does his mission include the goal of driving a wedge between Moscow and Beijing? Anyway, it would be logical to surmise that Beijing will figure prominently in the future US policy on Russia.
Mr. Huntsman has made anti-Russian remarks. This fact is not forgotten and that’s his weak point. The combination of anti-Russian rhetoric and the openly unfriendly attitude of the Atlantic Council toward Moscow under him will inevitably promote cautious attitude toward the new ambassador in Moscow.
He can stick to his guns and does what he said should be done back in 2011 – setting other issues aside to focus on arms control and Afghanistan. Today, Syria and the fight against terror should be added to the list. If so, he’ll do the right thing. A success in one area may give an incentive for making other steps to improve the relationship. As Otto von Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible. Doing the possible in his capacity, Mr. Huntsman can do a great job to serve the interests of all, especially the American people.