Here’s what you need to know about Jon Huntsman, Jr., the former Utah governor whose nomination to be Ambassador to Russia comes before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday:
- Huntsman was the “other Mormon” in the 2012 presidential contest, the centrist Republican whose campaign never quite took hold. The bid allowed his arch-rival, Mitt Romney, to come across more normal, and more conservative, than perhaps Romney would have appeared otherwise.
- Huntsman is proficient in Chinese, a product of his Mormon missionary service in Taiwan. And he’s leveraged that credential several times – including as the ambassador to China under Barack Obama.
- He is the son of billionaire chemical businessman Jon Huntsman, Sr., who is a bit of a Donald Trump-like figure in Utah politics.
- Political entanglements between the Huntsman family and the Romney family go back at least a generation, when Mitt’s father George Romney served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Richard Nixon, and Jon Huntsman, Sr., was staff secretary to Nixon.
- Like Mitt Romney (and many others – almost everyone in public life today!), he’s sparred with Donald Trump in bitter and personal terms. For Huntsman, this happened in 2011 and early 2012, with Huntsman in the primaries and Trump ultimately deciding to sit out the presidential contest that year.
- In 2016 Huntsman supported Trump, sort of. But he withdrew that endorsement after the “Access Hollywood” scandal.
- His not-so-secret desire is to be Secretary of State, under either a Democrat or a Republican. Perhaps that’s the reason that he chose the thankless task of being Trump’s punching bag on the continuing Russia scandal. No one will be able to say that he isn’t absolutely the most qualified person to fill the job that slipped through Mitt Romney’s fingers last year.
Jon Huntsman casts a shadow over embassy row
In part because of the waves he made when he took the job in Beijing during Obama’s first term, Huntsman has been casting something of a shadow over elite opinion in foreign policy and international affairs for some years.
The decision to serve a Democrat, even by this moderate and centrist Republican, was correctly seen as a prelude to Huntsman’s own abortive presidential bid in 2012.
Now, Huntsman’s new appointment to Russia under Trump raises interesting questions about how he will conduct America’s relationship – and what America’s relationship will be – with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
Huntsman brings his own political heft to the job aside from simply representing the president. At the same time, as a mostly traditional mainstream Republican on foreign policy, he is noticeably at odds with some of Trump’s stated positions.
Then add in the ongoing scandal of alleged collusion. The investigation into the 2016 election and Putin’s interference in it will hang over Huntsman as a domestic political concern few ambassadors have to deal with.
Dealing with human rights and religious freedom in Russia
Trump has quite noticeably rejected any kind of focus on human rights and democracy in American foreign policy.
With Putin in particular, but also other strongmen and dictators such as the Saudis or Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Trump has emphatically rejected the notion that how other countries govern themselves is our concern.
Instead, he embraces a kind of brutally cynical realpolitik in which “America First, Last and Only” is the only thing that matters.
Part of Huntsman’s “baggage” is his history of standing up for human rights, and religious freedom in particular. While in Beijing as America’s representative, he annoyed his communist hosts by often speaking out in criticism of the regime’s crackdown on minority religious groups.
It is unclear how much of this was driven from the Obama administration, or then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, versus Huntsman’s own initiative.
Russia’s stance against religious freedom will conflict with Huntsman
Over the last several decades of modernization, China’s economy has become remarkably market-oriented. It’s never even pretended to walk down the road of religious freedom.
Russia is another story, however. Dating to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia genuinely adopted liberal reforms, including religious freedom. Now, however, it’s increasingly clear that this is exceedingly nominal – even non-existent. It’s much the same way that Russia is only nominally a democracy.
Putin’s neo-traditionalist regime leans heavily on the Russian Orthodox Church for support, and he returns that support by promoting the orthodox church as an embodiment of Russian nationalism and patriotism.
That includes cracking down, sometimes severely, on minority religions. Although Huntsman’s own faith of Mormonism continues to operate in Russia, the activities of its former missionaries – now called volunteers – has been circumscribed.
By contrast, Jehovah’s Witnesses were officially designated as an extremist religion and banned in April 2017. While low-level government harassment has been widespread for many years under Putin, such a national-wide ban of a pacifist religious revisits Stalin-era religious persecution.
And not a peep has been heard from the White House – although the State Department did finally issue a statement in July condemning the decision as “the latest in a disturbing trend of persecution of religious minorities in Russia.”
Coincidentally or not, the statement came on July 19, the day after Huntsman’s nomination as ambassador was announced.
Ambassador to an increasingly menacing Russia
Alongside the religious freedom issue is the broader question of Putin’s authoritarianism. Censorship, suppression of dissent, persecution of journalists and opposition figures have together taken Russia further and further away from liberal multi-party democracy.
That’s a hefty pile of issues to deal with. Then add on top of that Russia’s recent invasions and occupations of its neighbors’ territory.
First in Georgia on behalf of a Russian-backed separatist region, and again in Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea, and continuing with in an ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. Under Obama, the international community and the United States opposed these actions. But Trump’s position seems to veer towards a more cooperative and accommodating attitude.
To the extent that Huntsman enjoys any degree of political and practical independence from Trump, that may give him some wiggle room to push Russia.
But while that independence might give freedom to act, lacking the support of the White House would severely reduce the effectiveness of any such advocacy for liberalization and democracy.
To a substantial degree, the influence of Hunstman will lie not in the White House, but in Congress, where key pieces of legislation relating to sanctions will continue to be considered.
(Photo of former Republican presidential candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, speaking to supporters as his wife Mary Kaye looks on during a primary night rally in January 2012 in Manchester, New Hampshire. By Alex Wong/Getty Images.)