Huntsman on Pragmatic US Foreign Policy in a Competitive Age

On Monday September 17, the Asia Society and George Washington University’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies hosted the event “In Conversation with Jon Huntsman.”  Moderated by David Shambaugh, the discussion covered questions for former Governor Jon Huntsman about the US political process, public service, US foreign policy, and current affairs in Asia.  While many of the topics Huntsman discussed involved reminding the audience that the geopolitical and economic position of the US is sliding, he remained optimistic that America’s values are still the “envy of the world” and urged younger generations to participate in the domestic and international policy process.   While being realistic about the challenges that the US faces, Huntsman offered areas to improve the country’s global image.  Both at home and abroad, the US must seek collaboration with partners to correct issues such as mistrust that perpetuate a fearful narrative of competition.

 ‘Cleaning up’ the economy and politics

 At least three times, Huntsman mentioned crony capitalism, and emphasized that the US has a lot of “cleaning up to do.”  He offered solutions to help mitigate the “trust deficit” in the US, such as Congressional term limits, eliminating super pacs, and expanding participation in democracy by improving voter turnout.  For an effective foreign policy, according to Huntsman, Americans “need to be united on the home front.”  With a weak economy, the US has no leverage in international trade negotiations which seek fewer restrictions on trade barriers. 

 With the world lacking leadership, the Obama Administration has attempted to project its strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific.  However there will always be a concern that the US may be unable or unwilling to sustain its role in the region given the lack of a concerted world view.  In line with current government officials, Huntsman believes that the future of the US does not lie in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Asia.  Huntsman proposed that the youth of today should have linkages with Asia in the same way that earlier generations had with Europe, participating in a shared culture and exchanges.  Seemingly optimistic, Huntsman said it boils down to the “people to people” relationships and connections to reinforce and strengthen US foreign policy.

 Working with rather than against China

 In the preamble to a question, the moderator invited discussion about how in recent times, the US has had to balance cooperation with competition – what Shambaugh calls “coopatition.”  Certainly, balancing cooperative efforts, not appearing to ‘hold China back’, and maintaining global and regional primacy is not an easy task.  Huntsman interprets  US-China dynamics pragmatically; when working with China on causes of mutual interest (such as China’s WTO accession), the US is able to manage the competitive dynamics of the relationship.  However, the US is failing to put at the forefront the issues on which the two powers can collaborate effectively. 

 The bilateral relationship between the US and China is understandably more similar to a global relationship; recognizing and changing the narrative will be a large undertaking given the lack of domestic American enthusiasm for China.  As the two leading global powers, when the governments of China and the US meet they must discuss a range of international issues such as the financial crisis in Europe, freedom of navigation, the Arab spring, and so forth.  There is a need to “humanize” US-China relations, and to move away from the “easy” fear factor narrative and “toward the opportunity factor.” 

 Overall, Jon Huntsman provided an honest, albeit moderated, conversation about the state of US foreign policy regarding China specifically and Asia more broadly.  Drawing on his experiences in different US administrations and most recently as Ambassador to China between 2009-2010, Huntsman offered unique insights, personal anecdotes and policy points like a candidate just off the campaign trail (or potentially still on that trail).  Perhaps he is still reflecting on his failed presidential campaign, including the debates in which  antagonistic opinions were rewarded while his more reasoned approaches to policy left the crowd cold.  If, as Huntsman claims, there are “impressive personalities coming forward in China” that hold pragmatic viewpoints, the American public should watch the leadership transition and hope that the US can engage its largest potential threat – or opportunity.

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