Whoever the next US ambassador to Russia is, he or she will be tasked with a daunting assignment: representing American interests to an important government at a time when Congress and the White House are divided on how to pursue those interests.
One name that is “in the mix,” White House officials say: former Utah governor and 2012 Republican presidential primary candidate Jon Huntsman. Prior to his presidential bid, he served as the ambassador to China, another key international partner, under former President Barack Obama. Ambassador Huntsman is currently chair of the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank based in Washington, DC.
The experience Huntsman has amassed may have prepared him well for the rigors of the post. And though any ambassador is only as important as the president wants him or her to be, as ambassador Huntsman could have substantial power to shape the trajectory of the US-Russia relationship going forward, analysts suggest.
“If it’s Jon Huntsman, then I think the US ambassador there could have a significant role,” Melvyn Levitsky, a former ambassador and career diplomat, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. Huntsman likely possesses the key traits for success, he indicates: ”He knows what an ambassador is, he’s a smart fellow, I think he would be influential with the president.”
As diplomats, US ambassadors are responsible for representing and advancing America’s interests in their host country. That means not only advocating for the policies laid out by Washington, but also explaining to Washington “what the likely repercussions of any American course of action will be with the host country, and how those are likely to affect other key American interests,” explains Robert G. Loftis, former ambassador to Lesotho and a professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, in an email to the Monitor. Ambassadors are also charged with managing all the federal agencies represented at an embassy, he says.
Russia is a particularly important diplomatic post, explains Yoshiko Herrera, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in Russian politics. From terrorism to NATO, nuclear proliferation to the Arctic, the US and Russia have both serious disagreements and shared interests.
“We can’t ignore Russia, so the top representative of the US government to Russia is a vitally important position,” she tells the Monitor in an email.
Huntsman has the chops to handle the demands of the role, as demonstrated by his time in China, another key diplomatic post, Ambassador Loftis indicates.
“The skills needed to deal with an important country where we have both convergent interests and significant differences should carry over from Beijing to Moscow,” he explains. “Certainly, he knows what it takes to lead and manage a big mission, and the importance of properly using his Foreign Service and other staff.”
In a context where Congress and the White House are at odds over how the US should approach Russia – Congress is investigating what it describes as potentially inappropriate links between the Trump team and Moscow, while Mr. Trump has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and called for stronger ties between the two countries – there is a potential for conflicting messages coming from the US, Professor Herrera suggests.
“This mixed messaging can lead to miscalculation about US resolve and ultimately to conflict if other countries were to misinterpret US positions,” she writes. That presents a challenge for any potential ambassador, so giving the position to someone with experience makes sense, Herrera indicates.
What Huntsman will need to add to his technical competency, observers agree, is an understanding of what makes Russia tick. Though he had some business dealings in Russia following the break-up of the Soviet Union, it is not clear that he has much regional expertise.
Levitsky, who served in Moscow during the Soviet era and is now a professor of international policy and practice at the University of Michigan, says the country’s contemporary stance can be summed up in a reworking of President Trump’s classic phrase: “Make Russia Great Again” – that is, restore the glory of the former Soviet Union.
Given the conflict between Congress and the president, Huntsman’s understanding of Russia may shape policy. At the very least, Ambassador Levitsky suggests, it may help counteract what he describes as Trump’s “hero-worship” of Mr. Putin.
Huntsman seems to be “a person that has his own views and will express them,” Levitsky says.
The two ambassadors note that harmonious relations, which Trump has repeatedly called for, are not universally desirable in diplomacy.
“They are a tool, not an end in themselves,” writes Loftis.
Levitsky illustrates that point, noting that when he served as ambassador to Brazil, positive relations were in the national interest. During his time in Bulgaria, however, the US had to “press” the Bulgarian government in order to pursue its interests.
“It’s a complicated issue – a lot of it depends on what Russia does, as well,” Levitsky says. “Do they want to have a better relationship with us? If they can get what they want, sure.”
Ultimately, Huntsman’s influence may hinge on the extent to which he can influence the president. While the ambassador has a say in negotiations on substantive policy issues like missile treaties, experts in the field will have the ultimate responsibility. On sanctions, the final decision belongs to the president and Congress.
“If the ambassador has the president at his back … the Russians will listen to the ambassador,” Levitsky says, “If he doesn’t, they’ll ignore him.”
[Editor's note: This article has been updated to add Ambassador Levitsky's current affiliation. He is a professor of international policy and practice at the University of Michigan.]