Monday, March 13, 2017

Will Jon Huntsman Go Rogue in Moscow? - POLITICO Magazine

Will Jon Huntsman Go Rogue in Moscow? - POLITICO Magazine: One of Jon Huntsman’s biggest moments as U.S. ambassador to China was also one of his most ambiguous.

At the height of the Arab Spring, just ten days after Hosni Mubarak resigned as Egypt’s president, anonymous calls for a Chinese “Jasmine Revolution” suddenly appeared online. Vigilant cadres sensitive to the news from the Middle East sent police officers out to swarm the busy commercial thoroughfare where the scheduled protest would take place. And at the appointed time, Huntsman appeared — in full Americana, sporting dark sunglasses and a leather jacket with an affixed Stars and Stripes patch.

Few Chinese activists turned up. As Huntsman walked past, a bystander recognized him and posted a video to social media. Chinese nationalists went berserk. Here was proof that the United States foments unrest in their country, and that the American ambassador had come to gawk at potential Chinese vulnerability. The U.S. Embassy moved quickly, insisting the episode was just a coincidence and that Huntsman and his family had decided to take a stroll that Sunday afternoon without knowledge of the event. I was a correspondent based in Beijing at the time, and remember how no one was really sure what to believe.

“It wasn’t quite Victoria Nuland handing out bread to protesters on Maidan Square,” recalls Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, referring to the recently departed U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and her dramatic personal diplomacy at the height of the uprising in Ukraine. “But it was an interesting and evocative gesture of concern about the right to peaceful protest."

The incident displayed Huntsman’s savvy as a principled diplomat. The move — however implausibly innocent — prevented the Chinese from giving official censure, yet still sent the intended human rights message. Throughout his two-year tenure in Beijing, Huntsman spoke out repeatedly, both publicly and privately, on human rights matters. In a frustratingly controlled “town hall” in Shanghai during President Barack Obama’s first trip to the country, it was Huntsman who slipped the only tough question, on internet censorship, past Chinese handlers.

Now Huntsman has been tapped to be President Donald Trump’s man in Moscow, easily his most politically charged ambassadorial appointment. Given Trump’s desire to reconcile with Russia and his remarkable solicitousness toward its strongman leader Vladimir Putin, the world will be watching closely to see how the new U.S. ambassador approaches the job. But if Huntsman approaches Russia in the same way he took on China, Moscow should expect a man who has no love for authoritarianism—and isn’t afraid to show it.