Jon Huntsman discusses U.S-China relations, domestic politics

Wen Huang
News Officer for Law, Policy and EconomicsUniversity Communications

Jon Huntsman told a University of Chicago audience that his 30 years of experience working with China on commercial, economic and diplomatic issues have left him worried about the United States’ ability to manage the complex relationship.

Despite the trade spats, cyberattacks and copyright violations the U.S. faces from China, Huntsman, a former Republican presidential candidate and U.S. ambassador to China under President Obama, called the relationship the most important of the 21st century. However, he cautioned that China’s young political class, with its much more nuanced understanding of the United States, will leave its American counterpart scrambling to keep up.

“We’re sitting across the table from one another, the Chinese being some of the best long-term strategic thinkers in the world, and we being some of the best short-term tactical thinkers in the world, and there is a gap like this between us,” he said, sweeping his arms wide, challenging the students in the audience to help. “Do you have the skills in terms of knowledge of culture, history, politics, language to be able to sit in a seat and carry out negotiations that actually help to bridge that chasm? Because most Americans can’t.”

Huntsman was on campus for a wide-ranging discussion with Fox News political analyst Juan Williams on the future of U.S.-China relations and the state of U.S. politics. The March 7 interview was the final event of the non-partisan Institute of Politics’ five-week, in-depth examination of the 2012 presidential campaign and election, which brought former candidates, advisors, strategists, pollsters, and fundraisers from both political parties to campus.

“The last five weeks—they have been incredibly hectic but incredibly fulfilling,” said Darren Reisberg, Executive Director of the Institute of Politics, at the beginning of the Huntsman program. “We saw quite vividly that those in politics with different views, and who spent months in direct battle, can sit down together and have a productive and enlightening discussion. And we were able to learn about the interesting paths that led our esteemed guests to where they are today.”

The audience learned that a failed bid for senior class president prompted Huntsman to leave high school and follow his passion for playing keyboards in a rock band. After attending the University of Utah and serving as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, Huntsman earned his BA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1987. That was followed by serving on the staff of the Reagan administration. Before his run for president in 2012, he also served as governor of Utah, U.S. Ambassador to Singapore under George H.W. Bush and U.S. Ambassador to China under Barack Obama.

When asked by Williams what he thought of the speculation that the Obama administration offered him the ambassadorship in an attempt to keep him out of the 2012 presidential race, Huntsman brushed it off. He cited his extensive experience with China and his comfort with the language as reasons why he was the best fit for the job.

“I don’t care what party the president belongs to,” Huntsman told Williams, saying he never doubted that he would take the job. “You either serve when asked, or you become a politician. I guess I’m not a very good politician.”

Huntsman ended up running in the 2012 presidential election anyway, jokingly attributing his defeat to the public praise he received from liberal Democrats Michael Moore and Bill Clinton—“There went South Carolina,” he said.

While affirming his Republican loyalty, Huntsman likened the current state of his party to Yugoslavia after the fall of communism. He worries about the GOP recovering from the loss of its long-standing image among voters as the leader on economic issues, and struggling to stay nationally relevant in the long-term if it is not back on its feet by the 2016 elections.

When Williams cited dismal results of a recent Pew poll on the Republican Party, noting that 36 percent of Republicans believe their party is out of touch with the American people, Huntsman was glad the numbers were so bad because it might help urge people to fight for change.

“You have to be angry enough at your own movement to begin to criticize it,” said Huntsman, who himself was openly critical of the traditional Republican stance on gay marriage, climate change, and its lack of appeal to Asians, Latinos and youth voters. “How do you expect to make progress unless you can throw out some ideas and say we might want to fine-tune or restructure or rethink some of these issues?”

But Huntsman said he is not only pessimistic about the Republican party but about the U.S. political class in general.

“One thing I thought was completely missing from the last election was any sense of strategy for this country going forward, any big picture,” he said. “It is not going to be about Iraq and it’s not going to be about Afghanistan. It is going to be about competitiveness. And that will get right down to economics and education.”

Asked by a student about Obama’s record so far, Huntsman called Obama “a good man,” “inspirational” and “an historic figure.” However, he did voice concern about Obama’s pursuit of health care reform in the face of a floundering economy. He also lamented Obama’s politically divisive messaging in his second inaugural address and his current “game of chicken” with House Republicans, saying he hoped for more leadership toward unity.

When another student asked if developing countries might start following a Chinese model of government over a U.S. model, given our current issues, Huntsman said he would not want to trade places with China despite its progress. Although China is a rising star on the world stage, it is struggling with a restive domestic population, economic inequalities, heightened anxieties and a tense regional situation, he said. However, he pointed out the need for the United States to fix its problems at home if it hopes to maintain its world leadership.

“That big bright light we shine on the rest of the world is only effective if we are effective here at home,” he said. “We have had years and years and years of the world saying, ‘What exactly are you doing and what is the grand strategy? And by the way, next time you want to talk about democracy, please explain why your Congress can’t get a budget together after three years?’

“If we are going to preach it, we need to practice it,” he said.