Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Huntsman as the next Russian Ambassador: Confusing, Shocking, and Altogether Terrifying

By David WangPublished March 24, 2017

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Written by David Wang, 3/24/17 One of Donald Trump's relatively unassuming political decisions could spell trouble down the line. With Trump's appointment of Jon Huntsman Jr, the former government of Utah, to the Russian Ambassadorship, Russian-US relations could be in for some trouble for the next two years.


Written by David Wang, 3/24/17

One of Donald Trump's relatively unassuming political decisions could spell trouble down the line. With Trump's appointment of Jon Huntsman Jr, the former government of Utah, to the Russian Ambassadorship, Russian-US relations could be in for some trouble for the next two years.







As the nightmare of Trump's presidency continues, Trump has continued to make baffling and downright dangerous picks to be part of his cabinet. In the midst of many confusing picks, like Betsy Devos for Secretary of Education and Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, perhaps his most precarious pick is his choice for the Russian Ambassadorship, Jon Huntsman Jr.
 
Huntsman differs from DeVos and Tillerson in that Huntsman has already had significant, relevant and legitimate experience in ambassadorship. During the Obama administration, Huntsman served as the ambassador to China, and additionally was formerly the very popular Governor of Utah. In fact, in 2009, a Deseret News poll found that 90% of Utahns approved of Huntsman as governor while only 41% of Utahns approved of Congress. Given his experience and popularity, on a surface level, Huntsman actually makes a very practical, experienced ambassadorship, and many even applauded Trump for the pick.
 
However, when examining this appointment, this appointment makes absolutely no sense. It is puzzling given Trump's nature why he would even consider giving Huntsman the nod for ambassadorship. Though Huntsman was one of the first to openly endorse Trump, Huntsman has not been afraid to criticize Trump in the past. In a 2011 Republican Primary debate, Huntsman said, "I don't subscribe to the Don Trump school...of international trade, I don't want to find ourselves in a trade war." Trump responded with his signature Twitter rants, replying "The lightweight, @JonHuntsman, used my name in a debate for gravitas--it didn't work. Sad!.....Jon Huntsman called to see me, I said no, he gave away our country to China! @JonHuntsman." In addition, although Huntsman was one of the first to support Trump, he was also quick to demand that Trump drop out of the race after Trump's infamous Access Hollywood tapes resurfaced. With Trump's track record reflecting one in which he only rewards those who are consistently and unquestionably loyal to him and his administration, it is surprising that Trump would give one of the most prominent ambassadorship appointments to a person who has criticized him before.
 
Aside from these personal politics, Huntsman does not seem like the right fit for the Russian Ambassadorship for several reasons. Huntsman was admittedly well-suited to be the ambassador to China because he spoke fluent Mandarin and had a well grounded understanding of that region of Asia. In fact, when Huntsman was younger, he spent two years in Taiwan as a Mormon missionary. Contrastingly, the Russian ambassadorship is a distinct position that requires a different skillset. Although both countries have large, authoritarian regimes that can be seen as the United States' biggest global rivals, their relationships with the US are nuanced and complicated by the US' policies and histories with each. In the recent decade, China has emerged as the United States' biggest economic rival, with the two economies becoming increasingly intertwined. For example, China has become the United States' biggest foreign creditor, and the two countries are productive trade partners.
 
On the other hand, Huntsman will assume the position of ambassador to Russia in a time where relations are frosty but peculiar. During the Obama administration, the United States openly criticized Russia for its annexation of Crimea and fought a proxy war with Russia through the Syrian Civil war. However, with the election of Trump, who has been very warm to Russia thus far, relations between the United States and Russia could somewhat thaw. Trump's appointment for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, made Russia very happy because of Tillerson's ties to Russian senior officials.
 
What is potentially dangerous about the Huntsman pick is that Huntsman will be crucial to United States-Russia relations for the next two years, but he lacks the nuance to properly mediate or facilitate this tenuous time in US-Russia relations. Although Huntsman was fluent in Chinese, he does not have any sort of proficiency in Russian, nor does he possess a skilled knowledge of the region. An ambassador who does not understand the cultural or linguistic idiosyncrasies of the country he/she is in could spell trouble. Huntsman has differed from Trump in terms of attitudes towards Russia and could prove to more hawkish towards Russia because of his position as chairperson for the think tank Atlantic Council (which has criticized Putin in the past). These differing in opinions could create dissonance between Huntsman and the White House, bungling relations even further.