“Beyond the Bilateral”: The Honorable Jon Huntsman

 /  Feb. 22, 2016, 9:36 p.m.


The Honorable Jon Huntsman is an American diplomat, politician, and businessman who has served under five different presidents throughout his prolific career. Following his leadership as Governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009, Ambassador Huntsman was unanimously confirmed as the United States Ambassador to China in 2009. He also sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 and now co-chairs the “No Labels” organization aimed at bipartisan problem-solving efforts. Ambassador Huntsman sat down with the Gate to discuss the state of US-China relations, America’s position as a global superpower, and the implications of the 2016 presidential race for the Republican Party.

The Gate: Given your experience as the former U.S. Ambassador to China, how important is our diplomatic relationship with China, and how do you think we can leverage this relationship in order to strengthen ties with global and regional powers?

Jon Huntsman: Well I would define it as the most important bilateral relationship in the world. That’s not going to decrease any time soon. In fact, as the twenty-first century plays out, it will become even more important for reasons that I think are widely visible to one and all, whether economic, security, people-to-people, or dealing with regional issues like North Korea. It is inconceivable that just the United States can make movement on the important issues of the daywhether it is Africa, the Middle East, debt in Europe, security on the Korean Peninsulawithout having some sort of collaborative relationship with China, whether you like that or not. Let’s just start with that premise, so you have to make it work. Failure is not an option. The world suffers as a result.

I have always thought, and I practiced as a diplomat, the idea that you have to have a comprehensive relationship with China that engages them at a lot of different levels on the issues that matter most. People say, “Gee things aren’t working out on trade, maybe we just impose a tariff and settle it out.” What people don’t realize is that a lot of these issues are intertwined, whether it’s getting their cooperation on the Korean Peninsula, whether it’s trade, whether it’s intellectual property protection, whether it’s human rights, whether it’s third party conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. They are all kind of intertwined. To get any kind of cooperation at all, you have to have a mix of different issues that become your priority. You can’t do one-off things and expect it to come out favorably. So we need to do a better job at developing a broad, comprehensive, global agenda with China. Because it isn’t simply a bilateral relationship anymore. It really is a global relationship. I think it is the only such relationship we have ever managed at the global level, which is to say that the stuff we talk about when we’re together goes beyond just the bilateral. So when our two heads of state get together, what do they talk about? They talk about the world, not just the United States and China. That’s part of the agenda, but much of the agenda really is of a global nature. So how do you capture the issues that really matter for us, for China, and for the rest of the world in the name of peace, stability, and prosperity, and make it all work? So that we can be somewhat coordinated? That’s the hard part. I think you get there by really working on devising a more comprehensive agenda, where we’re working many lanes simultaneously. It is not easy because we’ve never done anything like that before. But that’s how we need to proceed.

Gate: If you could prioritize some of the top issues that you would like to see us work together with China to resolve, such as cybersecurity for example, how would you rank those priorities?

Huntsman: I would say that cybersecurity, and including in that intellectual property theftwhich probably costs us $300 billion a year, which we don’t think about in those terms, but what it wipes out of our own economy is huge—that cluster of issues, I absolutely agree with you. That is today, or will quickly emerge, as the premier issue of our bilateral relationship. I think number two is probably regional security, for example, with North Korea and nuclear proliferation. And third, the islands—which present a real hazard in the Global Commons—that could spiral out of control without any kind of de-escalation capability. That’s how conflicts begin that you can’t back away from.

Gate: Digging a little deeper into the issue of cybersecurity, this past summer it became a major issue following the Office of Personnel Management hacks. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security confirmed that they have reason to believe that China was behind it. How do you think this affects US-China relations, and if you were currently the Ambassador, how would you proceed and deal with these types of conflicts?

Huntsman: Well it was an espionage coup for China. You have to think, if we had been on the other side and able to get the same information, would we have done the same thing? This is the tit-for-tat relationship we have, whether people see it or not. I mean, we hit each other all the time. On both sides, we have sophisticated means by which to do it. But shame on us for letting that happen! I don’t think we can complain that China did it—of course they are going to do that kind of thing. But we should have been smarter in terms of having more of a firewall protecting information like the SF-86 forms [that contain government employees’ personal information]. I got mine ripped off, my wife got hers ripped off, my son in the Navy got his ripped off. Our whole family was cleaned out by this. We all got notes from OPM basically saying, “We’re very sorry to inform you, but your SF-86 was taken.” It doesn’t take much in terms of algorithm support to sort through who is who in government and what they’re doing. So it was a huge espionage coup for China.

But this is going to go on and on. We are going to poke, and they are going to poke. At some point, you have to make the pain such that it stings more to steal than not steal, that the price you have to pay for engaging in this kind of behavior is too high. But right now, you can do it effortlessly and you can rip stuff off and there are no consequences. There are no rules of the road. There is no world trade organization or international something-or-other that says here are the rules and here are the punishments if you violate those rules. It just doesn’t exist. So at some point, we are going to have to look at establishing rules of the road for something as new as cyberspace. And then determine what the punishment will be if people cross certain boundaries. All the while—and we are very good at doing this as a country, by the way—we need to develop technology in the form of countermeasures that can be used. I was out in Silicon Valley a couple weeks ago, and I am always blown away by what people are doing with round-the-bend thinking and emerging technologies. We are perfectly capable of staying ahead in this race to protect our most important, sensitive information. So we should have a parallel track—rules of the road, but at the same time, devise new technology that would serve as a form of countermeasure against that kind of attack.

Gate: As a follow-up, given recent news of Apple and Tim Cook challenging federal rulings about releasing data from terrorists’ phones, how do you see that affecting not only domestic issues, but also our international security?

Huntsman: Personal privacy is a big thing in this country. The rest of the world knows it, I think they respect us for it, and I think they would like to aspire to that same level of privacy for their own citizens. But you have big state-run media operations and propaganda departments that make it virtually impossible in most countries. I think we wipe out something that is so sacred to this country and most Americans—and that is the issue of privacy—if we create new back doors and surrender to the government. If it comes down to either security or privacy, that’s almost a false choice. Of course, we all want to have a secure environment. But I think if the government prevails in this suit, we lose at the sweet spot at which we’ve resided for so long, where we can talk to China and Russia, and at least sometimes Iran, about issues without looking like hypocrites. So if the government ultimately has control in the name of security, over our content or communications or privacy, then I think we become less and less of that American ideal. This is a personal and emotional issue for a lot of people, even though we want the most secure environment we can find. It’s a horrible choice and dichotomy to have to present to the American people as both sides of the debate are very emotional. But this gets right to the heart and soul of our values as Americans, whether you are Republican or Democrat.

Gate: Shifting gears a bit, the Institute of Politics hosted a film screening of the documentary, “All Eyes and Ears”. One part that stood out was when you were discussing how you feel like the United States has lost credibility because of its wars and unilateralism. Specifically, you said that as a superpower, there’s a “perception that we don’t take into account concerns of others with which we are doing business.” Do you still feel the same way? If so, how can we change or restore our nation’s credibility?

Huntsman: I think we have relied way too much on unilateralism and militarism. We have completely tossed aside the concept of diplomacy. We now have more musicians in the Defense Department—and I say this with both my sons being in the military—we have more musicians better trained in the defense department than we have diplomats in this country, who are not as well trained in their pursuits. Traditionally, wars have been fought when diplomats fail at their work, which is sitting at the negotiating table with people you don’t always agree with. It’s almost as if we don’t do that anymore. We don’t believe in sitting down with people we have differences with—we bomb them. And for whatever reason, and particularly since we went into Iraq fifteen years ago, this has been the predominant philosophy by many in this country. I am worried that the next generation is growing up with this military-first philosophy, that the United States can get in and punch somebody, bully them, and we’ll get our way. That’s not the way the world works! That’s maybe how it works on the presidential debate stage when you get people cheering you on. But that’s not the way the world works.

The world is like a big family, and we are at the end of the table as the most powerful member of that family, maybe the one who controls the bank account. And everyone has different approaches to what they want for dinner, and not everyone is going to get their way. You’re going to have to figure out through negotiations to come to some middle ground on the issue of what you’re going to have for dinner, or in the case of international diplomacy, things of much greater import. I think we’ve got a ways to go in terms of reorienting ourselves around a worldview that says, yes we want a very powerful military—the best in the world, and we have that today, as we are spending over $500 billion a year to get it—but we also want the best diplomats, who are the best trained and best able to get out there and preserve peace or create peace in hostile environments before we send men and women in to die. I don’t think we have exploited that option to the best of our abilities as a country. We used to do that, but we don’t do it as much anymore.

Gate: Why do you think that is?

Huntsman: I do think that 9/11 changed everything. We were hit in ways that we never expected. It left us reeling and numb to realize that we could be hit internally. Something that [German Chancellor] Bismarck used to say, “America is the luckiest country in the world. They have a country north of them that is weak, and one south of them that is weak. And fish on both sides.” We have impenetrable barriers and perfect geography here. So we have more flexibility, in terms of how we do foreign policy. We can make mistakes without it ending us. But most of the world doesn’t have that luxury. They are surrounded by, in some cases, a dozen nation states, some of them hostile and some whom they’ve gone to war with in recent years. Very tense environments—you have religious splits, land and border disputes, history that is playing out in some ways in some regions of the world that have been very unfavorable. Meanwhile, we have this perfect setting.

And then came 9/11, and I think it shattered our sense of innocence. We hit back because we had to do something after that. But the choices we made were wrong, some of them, and resulted in wars that we should not have picked. And a reordering of the post-Ottoman Middle East that today is reeling from those choices and no closer to stability. We used the military-first option post-9/11, as we should have, but we haven’t taken a step back to say that we need some diplomatic solutions too. The hard part about that is to have diplomatic solutions, you actually have to talk to people you don’t get along with sometimes.

Gate: So then what would be your diplomatic analysis of the Iran nuclear deal?

Huntsman: My diplomatic analysis of the Iran deal is that I think it’s horrible that we are giving up $150 million in unfrozen assets without having any benchmarks that Iran is supposed to meet along the way. I am okay with unfreezing assets—we did it with Vietnam and China, and now with Cuba—but there’s got to be a sense of performance along the way. But that’s not written into the agreement. I can’t figure out for the life of me why we did not structure something that says, “Okay we are willing to take this journey because we’re all in favor of moving toward regional stability. You have your issues, and you are supporting people in the Middle East who have totally destabilized the region through Hezbollah and Hamas and Houthis in Yemen,” and we’ve got to figure out how to pull back from that. We have to have people at the table who ultimately can guide us to some peaceful outcome, which would include Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia (who we don’t talk to), Iran (who we also don’t talk to), and probably China. They all have to be at a table together at some point. The Yalta and Potsdam conferences of a generation or two ago, I mean, they did that for a reason. That’s how you move the world. So I can see [in the Iran deal] that there’s this aspiration regionally, but in terms of the payoff and the way that [assets are] unlocked instantly, this is a huge mistake. It lessens the incentive for Iran to actually be on its best behavior, if they ever will be.

Gate: In another part of the “All Eyes and Ears” documentary, you talk about how, in regards to China, the “rhetoric on Capitol Hill” is very different from the “reality on the ground.” What do you think the American public needs to know about China that isn’t being represented in this rhetoric on Capitol Hill and the presidential debate stage?

Huntsman: The people of China are just like the people here. Our aspirations are very similar. They want opportunities for their kids and safe communities. They want a government that they can trust, and they don’t trust the government right now. They have a huge trust gap toward the Party, much the same way that we have a trust deficit toward our own government and institutions of governance. So I’d say the American people and the people of China are very aligned in terms of our aspirations and our sense of failings on the part of the political class. So that’s where I think we come together in ways that I don’t think a lot of Americans would necessarily see or understand—nor should they, because you wouldn’t understand that unless you were actually on the ground and living in that environment. Nor would they see or understand or feel the good will that the people of China have toward the United States, which I felt everywhere I went. I went to college campuses to speak to young people of the next generation in China. I went to villages in Tibet and Xinjiang, practically every province in the country. There’s good will towards the United States, by and large. It has carried over from the role we played in World War II against Japan, where we were aligned with the Chinese, at least the nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek before the Chinese revolution of 1949. We built hospitals and schools, including St. John’s University in Shanghai where a lot of their fine diplomats were educated in English. And you go out to a place like Chengdu or Sichuan, and people have a favorable attitude because they remember the old days when the Flying Tigers were based there. So it’s interesting because you go around and people will be very warm toward the United States, and I’m not sure the average American citizen would think or sense that the people of China would actually be very warm toward America and American ideals. When we are on our high horse and lecture people, as opposed to listening or working together toward solving problems that really matter, that’s when we lose the trust of people. That’s when they feel that arrogance has taken over. But when we actually live our values, which are based on our founding documents—based on human rights, the privacy of the individual, fairness, and the rule of law—the Chinese people get that. They really do. There’s a lot of sympathy for the values we have. I would like to see more of that in our discussions.

Gate: How much do you think the average American citizen’s perception of China is a result of how China is portrayed in the media or by our presidential candidates?

Huntsman: One hundred percent, because they would have no other way of knowing unless they had actually spent time over there. We have very few people over there—more today than before, so maybe 15,000 students—but China has around 300,000 students here. As the two largest economies in the world and as two countries that have been joined throughout modern history in events both good and bad, we should be having more interaction. We have a lot of economic interaction, but there should be more. We used to follow the opinions of the Chinese people toward the United States, and we did polling every now and then out of the embassy. I was always surprised by the high level of—let’s call it “support” as you would for a presidential candidate—support that was held toward the United States. Well beyond what I thought it would be. If you were to take a similar poll here, I think the numbers would be lower. The unfortunate part of all of this is that the news cycles have recently become more negative. So on both sides, I think you probably see the diminution in attitudes toward each other, largely driven by the media and politics. Let’s face it, there have also been some difficult trade disputes and cybersecurity disputes that are big, ugly, nasty, and searching for a fix. They’re going to continue to be a real challenge for that relationship. It’s going to be a tough relationship to manage in the years to come, no doubt about that.

Gate: Finally, what is your take on the 2016 election cycle? How have things changed from when you ran for president in 2012?

Huntsman: Well [voters] were mad in 2012, and they are furious now. Instead of politicians or candidates leading people through discourse and painting a pathway toward the promised land, through a real platform of solutions, it seems that they are just regurgitating the anger in louder voices, as if that’s a strategy for the future. That’s not an answer. Anger is not an answer. But that’s where we are in this election cycle. It’s worse than 2012, and it was pretty bad in 2012. It’s hard to know where this is going to take us, really hard to know. The implications for the Republican party are profound. It’s almost as if we’re seeing a new party emerging out of the rubble that was a populist party. So I think the Republican party is going to look a lot different after the election—if we win, it will look different and if we lose, it will look different. Trump has had a huge impact on the discourse, and heaven forbid we take this as the lesson for how campaigns ought to be run. You bludgeon people and speak loudly and dismiss public policy proposals that we ought to be actually elucidating the audience with. And he’s saying we are going to build a big, beautiful wall. That won’t do it. Same thing with Bernie Sanders. For Bernie Sanders, if you took away the term “billionaire”, and with Donald Trump, if you took away the term, “wall”—those have been the flashpoints on both sides. They would then have to talk in greater detail about what it is they’re trying to do. But the detail today does not go beyond a wall. So it isn’t as much what you want to do, but it’s how you are going to do it. That’s where our conversation should be. We should demand that the candidates talk more about how they are going to do it. Because once you talk about the “how” as opposed to the “what,” then you have to start talking about getting people together, what the policy proposals would actually look like and feel like and what it will cost, and what stakeholders need to be involved in actually getting it done and implemented. We haven’t had any of these conversations. None. I think it’s a disservice to the American people when we don’t have these kinds of conversations. We reduce complexity to a bumper sticker, whether it’s around China or immigration policy. These are very difficult and complicated issues with a lot of gray area. They’re not black or white. Yet, they won’t be answered in the black or white realm either; they’ll be answered somewhere in the middle. And that’s what we are missing right now in these campaigns.

Haley Schwab and Liz Stark


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