Mr. Huntsman goes to Moscow

Mar 09 2017

President Donald Trump has chosen Jon Huntsman to represent the United States as  Ambassador to the Russian Federation.

Huntsman has a extensive record in public service. He served two terms as Governor of the state of Utah and was Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China under President Obama. He also briefly ran for president in 2012, but failed to gain much traction.

Governor Huntsman’s acceptance of this post comes at a time where relations between the United States and Russian Federation are at a massively important and controversial crossroads.

In the primaries, Trump raised many eyebrows when he claimed that he’d “be friends with” President Vladimir Putin. This came as a considerable surprise when Congressional Republicans and Democrats were nearly unanimously supportive of the sanctions levied against the Kremlin for its actions in Eastern Ukraine, as well as Putin’s assistance to President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, by all accounts a bloodthirsty dictator.  When asked about Ukraine, Trump shrugged and said it was Europe’s problem. When asked about the suspicious deaths of dissident Russian journalists and opposition figures, Trump flipped the question and asked “You think we [the United States] are so innocent?” When pressed for an explanation on Trump’s controversial remarks and actions during the Vice Presidential debates, now-Vice President Mike Pence seemed to deny everything, reverting back to the traditional Republican lines about holding the Kremlin accountable.

The Russian connection has only ballooned in press coverage since Trump’s remarks early in the presidential election. Democrats, cautious in their actions against Russia since the beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, started to take a more hard-line stance against cooperation with the Kremlin. Rumors started to swirl around Mr. Trump, alleging he was a pawn of the Kremlin.

These allegations are not without considerable evidence, but nothing has been proven quite yet. Investigations are underway and will require thorough scrutiny. Many Congressional Republicans, as well as almost all Congressional Democrats, have been sitting on their hands for an answer.

As Ambassador, Jon Huntsman does not possess a large amount of enumerated political power, but his experience should allow him to be an influential voice nonetheless. Huntsman bucked his own party when he accepted an ambassadorship to China under President Obama, and he seemed to gain considerable approval for his work.

Russia is a different animal altogether from China, though. Chinese foreign policy, while not passive, is not quite as direct and bold as Russia’s has been, especially in regards to Ukraine. It’s true the Chinese government is building islands in the South China Sea, much to the rage of Vietnam, but Beijing is much more reliant on soft power than Moscow. Anti-American sentiment in China certainly exists, but it is not as pronounced as that of Russian state media. The economic relationship between the United States and Russia is also quite different that that of the Sino-American relationship. The United States does not rely on Russian goods the way it does with Chinese goods, and a protectionist trade policy like Trump is promising would affect our relations with China much more than Russia.

The Trump Administration, while young, has been mired in slip-ups and controversy since it started out of the gate. Whether these scandals and controversies deserve the scrutiny and criticism they are getting is up for debate, but a by-product of the clumsy start has been that the Trump Administration has not produced a lot of concrete results – good or bad – in regards to foreign policy. It’s important to remember that Trump has only been in office for less than two months, so there’s a lot more story to be written about his presidency. Messages regarding the Administration’s policy on the Kremlin have been inconsistent. Allegations of telephone calls concerning possible sanctions removal between Trump and President Putin are often followed by statements that there will be no sanctions removal “until Crimea is returned to Ukraine”.

Huntsman is an interesting choice for the Ambassadorship. During his brief run for president in 2012, he was often, for better or worse, portrayed as the “moderate” in the Republican party primary because of his beliefs on LGBT rights, climate change, and evolution. One could argue this was more due to his demeanor than his actually being “moderate” as his economic views are quite conservative and he was Governor of one of the most conservative states in America, but the perception seemed to stick.

Huntsman, when judged purely on his own experience, is earnestly qualified for this job. He claimed he was proud to have taken the Ambassadorship to China under President Obama because he saw it as an opportunity to serve his country. However, he will not be setting policy in the same way his boss will, and Ambassadors do not typically dissent against the government they serve, though they can obviously lend their counsel. Therefore, what Huntsman does is likely going to depend on how the Trump Administration manages to weather the storm of possible deeper involvement with pro-Kremlin officials and what type of relationship they decide to pursue with the Kremlin. As of now, we can only really speculate, but the choice itself seems to be well thought out.

By Kyle Menyhert,
columnist of Free Russia Foundation

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