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Jon Huntsman Jr. On Putin, Diplomacy Under Trump And A Possible Bid For The Governor's Mansion

Photo of Ambassador Jon Huntsman.
Kelsie Moore / KUER
Jon Huntsman Jr. speaks with KUER about his recent stint as U.S. Ambassador to Russia and what will factor into his decision to seek a third term as governor.

Jon Huntsman Jr. recently returned to Utah after a two-year stint as U.S. ambassador to Russia. Huntsman served as Governor of Utah from 2005 until 2009, when he was tapped by the Obama administration to be the ambassador to China.

Huntsman talked with KUER’s Nicole Nixon about his diplomatic experience, getting to know Russian President Vladimir Putin and what he can offer Utah — whether he decides to run for governor or not. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nicole Nixon: I have to ask you first about running for governor. Are you considering that?

Jon Huntsman: Here are two things I do know: Number one, it was the honor of my lifetime for Mary Kaye and I to represent the people of Utah as governor. We loved it. It's a position where you can actually solve problems and look to the future and try to anticipate trends and deal with them through public policy. And I love that, so that's one thing I do know for sure. Number two, I think we'll have an answer in the next few weeks. I do know that for sure, but we're giving it serious consideration. 

NN: What are you weighing in this decision?

JH: The only thing you weigh in this kind of decision is, “Do you add value as opposed to dead weight?” I don't believe in adding dead weight to positions of public trust. If you can come in and do something that is worthwhile to elevate and lift people and communities in the state in anticipating the challenges ahead due to growth, air challenges, transportation, education, then I think it's totally debatable. 

I did it before, and I think we left a legacy of a lot of innovation and we took ideas from all sides. We tried to do it in the best of the Utah tradition, and that is you don't let blind partisanship get in your way — you just get the job done. That's what we're going to weigh it on. 

NN: It has been 10 years since you were last in the governor's mansion. How is Utah different now? And what challenges do you think the state faces now that it didn't 10 years ago — whether you run for governor or not?

JH: We have a million more people. People don’t stop to think that we're the sixth* most urban state in America. We've got rural counties, to be sure. Many of our 29 counties are rural, including [that which] the Huntsman family is from, Millard County. 

But most of our population lives on a contiguous corridor. Shoehorning a million new people in a growth corridor is a real challenge. And when you do that without properly anticipating what the needs are going to be, you find yourself behind the growth curve instead of ahead of the growth curve. 

*Editor’s Note: According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2010, Utah is the eighth most urban state in the country.

NN: You left less than a year into your second term to go be ambassador to China. And if you do decide to run for governor, you already have a few critics who would say you’ve had your chance and you left to go do this other thing across the globe. How would you respond to that?

JH: I left because the President of the United States asked me to take on a very important and sensitive assignment. I was raised with the idea that when your president asks you to do something, you salute and try to help. So I would not change that, I’d it all over again.

I believe in politics. It’s not about having a chance, it's about what the people want, because the people ultimately are the final arbiters of politics. You put your name out there — if they like it, if they think your ideas are sound and if they connect with them, they're gonna put you in office.

NN: Would you ever consider running for Senate?

JH: No.

NN: Why not?

JH: Well, I don't think I have the patience to do that, quite frankly. You're in a big body. It's highly partisan. The results are very, very few, and I like to be where you're close to people, where you're able to work with different disparate groups in solving big problems. I found that to be the most incredibly satisfying thing in politics. I haven't been in elective politics that much, it was just as governor. But I have to say that being governor is the best job in the world.

NN: One more question about possibly running for governor. If you do, one of your Republican opponents would be the lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox. You're both moderate Republicans. You're both fairly popular in Utah. How would you handle that competition?

JH: Well, I'll let you know if we get in the race.

Photo of Ambassador Jon Huntsman.
Credit Kelsie Moore / KUER
Huntsman said being governor is "the best job in the world." But he stopped short of saying whether he will seek a third term.

NN: You recently came back from two years in Russia, where you served as ambassador. What was it like being in the middle of these two countries that have this very tense relationship, especially with all of the drama around the 2016 election?

JH: It was a little bit like managing the U.S.-China relationship, which I did under the last administration. [There was] more drama in the sense that the Mueller probe was playing out, in the sense that there had been highly-charged political issues in the aftermath of the election meddling of 2016. 

[Also] in the sense that Putin is a masterful statesman, in that he knows how to use power in a very detrimental way in tripping people up and in advancing the cause of his regime. Probably better than anyone in the world, he’s able to use power because he's been at it for 20 years and has seen every trick in the trade. Working in those conditions was about the most challenging thing I've ever done. 

NN: Did you see much of Vladimir Putin? What was that relationship like?

JH: He's a very interesting person. He's very unassuming at the negotiating table. He's very understated — sometimes it's hard to hear him on the other side of the table, he's so understated. But he's shrewd, and that belies a very keen sense of determination. He has been at this job for 20 years. And he's been very, very shrewd in making Russia and Putinism relevant on the world stage, whether it's in the Middle East or certain other corners of the world, pursuing a goal that is basically to recoup the glory of the Soviet years.

NN: What advice would you give the Trump administration now about dealing with Russia?

JH: I would say that we have to have more than sanctions. We have almost 900 sanctions against individuals and entities. Sanctions just for the sake of sanctions don't get you anywhere in terms of strategic objectives. 

So what one needs to do is basically couple sanctions with engagement, confident engagement, where we're actually communicating with the Russians about why we're upset, why we have concerns and where we want to take the relationship.

NN: What lessons have you learned in these roles and from being in places like Russia and China that you think you'll be able to bring back to Utah?

JH: What I learned from my work here as governor — that applied to what I did as a diplomat — is using your listening abilities more than your speaking abilities. Putting yourself in the shoes of the other side and understanding their argument is a very important part of diplomacy. If you can't make the argument the person on the other end of the table is making, then you haven't done your homework. 

Similarly, being governor, if you can't make all of the arguments that others are making about a particular issue, then you haven't done your homework. It's about bringing people together of diverse opinions, it’s about listening and it's about finding a way forward, which typically is right down the middle.

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