It feels like dog years since the foreign policy rumor mill churned out the chatter that Jon Huntsman was President Donald Trump’s pick for Moscow. In the 138 dizzying days that followed, the president has seemingly done everything in his power to make the job of the next ambassador to Russia more difficult. He failed to affirm America’s commitment to Article 5 at his first NATO meeting; fired James Comey over the Russia investigation, leading to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller; denied and then confirmed Donald Trump Jr.’s 2016 campaign meeting with Russian operatives; and held—unreported until this week—another hour-long one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Only after all of this did the Huntsman nomination finally become official—in a press release that misspelled his first name.
That job offer must have looked very different on March 2, when it was first reported, than it does today. But what was true then may still be true now: Jon Huntsman could be the brightest star in a Trump foreign-policy constellation that’s otherwise barely twinkling.
Huntsman’s resume is long and impressive. He’s been an ambassador under Democratic and Republican presidents, a two-term governor, the chairman of one of America’s leading think tanks and even a presidential candidate. He’s a moderate by temperament, a conservative by ideology and a pragmatist by approach. And he’s also the right pick to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, so long as he goes to Russia with clear eyes.
Not since Averill Harriman during World War II or Llewelyn “Tommy” Thompson amid the Cuban Missile Crisis has an ambassadorial posting in Moscow had such potential to be pivotal. And certainly not in recent memory would there be so many compelling reasons to give that ambassador such running room to shape the relationship with Moscow in his or her image.
That may ring, at worst, naïve and, at best, counterintuitive given the morass of questions that continue to haunt President Trump over the relationship between his 2016 campaign and Putin’s Russia. But consider the possibilities of an ambassador with as sterling a reputation and respected a background as Huntsman. Given Putin’s insularity, even a diplomat as skilled and experienced as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov never commands the portfolio for the nation’s thorniest issues, starting with Ukraine. The Kremlin calls the shots on the most sensitive matters. And for the United States, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—who has lamented the constraints of his job and his inability to appoint his own senior staff, while failing to persuade the president on key issues from Qatar to climate change—wouldn’t be best positioned as an interlocutor with Moscow. The distance from Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador’s fabled residence in Moscow, to the Kremlin is a lot shorter than the flight from Andrews Air Force Base, both literally and figuratively.
Most importantly, if only because the president’s burgeoning legal team will demand nothing less, this White House—more than any in history—must soon realize that every utterance about Russia and every communication with Putin will be subjected to outsized, unprecedented scrutiny. That in itself is an incentive to rely on traditional diplomatic channels to manage the bilateral relationship, rather than exploiting White House backchannels. (Although it doesn’t seem to keep the Trump team from trying.)
Clearly, Huntsman would come to the job fireproofed. Not only can this White House ill afford another high-profile firing or resignation—let alone one connected to Russia—surely they know the enormous leverage Ambassador Huntsman would hold: If ever he walked away whispering that the White House had a naïve or overly conciliatory approach to Russia, or worse, he would pour gasoline on the fire that is already raging over Trump and his associates’ relationship with the Kremlin. The Trump team has tested this proposition before with the firing of James Comey, but there’s still a reason why in Washington, you should always beware the power of the official who cannot be fired.
The political benefits for both Trump and Huntsman are obvious—if the marriage works. Coming not from the world of Steve Bannon’s alt-right disruptors, but from the chairmanship of the nonpartisan, Brent Scowcroft-anointed Atlantic Council, Huntsman could be a rare validator for Trump from inside the foreign policy establishment. At this year’s Atlantic Council gala dinner in June, which followed the president’s rocky NATO trip, the assembled Washington foreign policy elite’s only sense of hope came from the expectation that the council’s outgoing chairman would soon again be referred to as “ambassador.” If Huntsman is seen as the steward of the U.S.-Russia relationship—and its proper limits—concerns over the Trump administration’s relationship with Russia might be slightly less potent for Republican hardliners.
What would success look like for a free-wheeling Ambassador Jon Huntsman?
As a former ambassador to Beijing who had to reassure the Chinese who were deeply suspicious that the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” was aimed at checking them in their own neighborhood, he’s no stranger to tough assignments in countries where the job requires both reassurance and confrontation. But, as in China, he would no doubt have to pick his battles carefully. Huntsman found ways to square the circle during his time in Beijing. He famously us an unannounced trek through an anti-government protest to subtly—or not so subtly—remind the Chinese government that the U.S. was closely watching and wouldn’t look kindly upon any recriminations against protesters. And he did that while also finding ways to cooperate with the Chinese on economic issues. He’s no stranger to complicated internal interagency dynamics, having been a Republican in a Democratic administration, albeit one unadvisedly ambitious enough to depart early and hopelessly contend for the GOP nomination to face the president who had appointed him ambassador.
Russia has done President Trump an enormous favor by spinning overtime to create a public impression that the U.S.-Russia relationship was frozen during the last administration and that only now is a thaw possible. The Kremlin’s motives in shaping this narrative are transparent: If they move the floor for expectations into the basement, any perceived improvement—however small—would be spun as a win for the Kremlin at home and on the world stage, where Putin has always felt disrespected. But the truth is, despite the substantive disagreements and personal animosity between Putin and Obama, the two countries got a lot done diplomatically during the Obama years by focusing on areas of common interest, while agreeing to disagree on others: cooperating on Afghanistan, on what was seen at the time as a breakthrough chemical weapons agreement on Syria, on the Iranian nuclear issue and even working together to create the world’s largest marine-protected area in the Ross Sea. Where the Obama administration pushed back was in areas like Ukraine and Syria, refusing to break with principle in areas where the gulf with the Kremlin’s position proved too large for compromise.
Given all this, it remains a mystery exactly what the “new” relationship Trump seeks with Russia could actually achieve for U.S. interests. But at a minimum, Huntsman can revive the practical initiatives of the Obama years as confidence-building steps even as he explores whether any progress can be made on intractable issues—like Ukraine and the continued crisis in Syria—to find an off-ramp to Russia’s deplorable behavior.
The big question is: will he be empowered to set the table for any kind of breakthrough? Can the even-keeled temperament of the former chief executive of Utah make it in an administration known for chaos, territoriality and multiple power centers/? Certainly it would be a contrast from the ordered, process-conscious administrations of Barack Obama and George H.W. Bush (under whom, he served as ambassador to Singapore) with which Huntsman is familiar.
Given the Trump inner circle’s naive, grandiose and overly romanticized view of Moscow, an Ambassador Huntsman offers America the best chance to approach Russia as it really is: often an adversary and sometimes a potential partner on discreet issues; an economy on life support; a political system in decline that relies on Cold War tactics because its narrative doesn’t fit this century; a state ruled by a devious ex-KGB officer who uses the dark arts of cyber-attacks and fake news because mature, honest diplomacy won’t advance his agenda; a proud country that more often than not acts brutishly out of weakness, not strength.
For Huntsman, it’s a daunting assignment: navigating a whirlwind of intra-administration chaos on a quest to strengthen America’s global position, rebuild and reinforce its damaged alliances, and create a firm-but-constructive relationship with Russia—all under the watchful eye of a public deeply distrustful of the president’s relationship with Putin.
And if he’s successful? Then with both Beijing and Moscow on his resume, Jon Huntsman might just end up the next Republican secretary of state.