Last week, former Utah governor and current Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman found an audience for his foreign-policy views, engaging a packed auditorium at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He opened his talk by answering a question that all contenders for the Oval Office have asked themselves: Why would anyone be crazy enough to run for president? His answer: We haven’t gotten the hope we were promised. “I can’t stand the thought that we are about to hand down the greatest country there ever was to your generation less competitive, saddled with debt, and less hopeful than the country I got,” he said.
In his wide-ranging speech, Huntsman outlined a vision for America’s engagement with the world that would mark a major shift from what we’ve seen over the past decade. He would reorder our priorities away from the War on Terror and toward international trade and economic policy. “One of the great voids in our foreign policy today is that we aren’t doing free-trade agreements,” he told me in an interview. “We are known for our commitment to liberty, democracy, and free trade. Open markets. That light isn’t shining right now.” More to the point: “The future of the United States is not going to be determined by firefights on the Hindu Kush,” Huntsman said.
Not since George H. W. Bush has a Republican presidential candidate had such hands-on experience in international relations. Like the 41st president, Huntsman is a veteran Asia hand, having served most recently as ambassador to China. His informal policy advisers include former H. W. Bush national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft. Huntsman started his career under Ronald Reagan, landing his first job as a staff assistant at the White House. He’s lived overseas four times, speaks fluent Mandarin, and has served as a U.S. trade representative and an ambassador to Singapore. He blends the experience of Bush with what he calls the “bold, confident, internationalist” policy of Reagan. He’s a self-described foreign-policy “realist,” but these views are buoyed by a “Reagan-esque optimistic view” of the world.
Huntsman’s reception so far from Republicans has been somewhat subdued. He’s gotten heat for serving as Obama’s envoy to China, a criticism he dismisses, noting the old maxim that politics ends at the water’s edge and the long tradition of bipartisanship in international affairs. (Huntsman dealt directly with Obama twice during his tenure: His only one-on-one meeting with Obama was when he was given the job as ambassador, and he interacted with the president again during Obama’s China visit — a surprising lack of engagement for a chief executive who had claimed to make Asia a priority.)
Huntsman is the only Republican candidate to endorse Speaker John Boehner’s debt-ceiling plan despite its perceived unpopularity among conservatives — a sign that just because he’s running for president doesn’t mean he’s going to start to pander. He thinks the best way to have leverage abroad is to ensure a strong economy at home — to “get our house in order,” as he puts it — and so raising the debt ceiling is a necessity.
His views, though, may prove to be much more popular among tea-party conservatives (and New Hampshire primary voters) than one might at first assume. Tea partiers, like so many other Americans, are fed up with the decade-long war in Afghanistan. Huntsman has made it clear he’s ready to wind it down, leaving behind only a nimble and aggressive counterterrorism force. Although the Pentagon and the commanders on the ground are still pressing to keep as many nation-building troops in Afghanistan for as long as possible, Huntsman said he’ll trust his own instincts. (Unlike frontrunner Mitt Romney, who said he’ll do what the generals tell him to do.) “I’ve been engaged in that part of the world for many years, and I lived next door for the last two years,” he said. “We’ve already had wins for the United States [in Afghanistan]. We can’t wish for stability more than they want it.” And though he’s been portrayed as too moderate for the Republican base, he has a consistent pro-life record, is a big Second Amendment supporter, and enacted the largest tax cuts in Utah’s history.
He’s taken a somewhat skeptical view of the Arab Spring, seeing it as less about democratization and more about the hatred of longstanding dictatorships. He’s opposed to military involvement in Libya — at Dartmouth, he sharply questioned the intervention in Libya as a national-security interest — and instead advocates diplomacy utilizing institution building and economic incentives. “Involving our military, I think, is a bridge too far,” Huntsman said. The aftermath of the political earthquakes shaking the region will be a “very murky situation” for years to come. “We need to make sure our friends and our allies know that they are friends and allies,” he says, specifically citing Israel as America’s “most meaningful relationship in the Middle East” but one that is “in tatters right now.”
At Dartmouth, a number of primary voters told me they had already narrowed down their choices to Romney and Huntsman. “I couldn’t support a candidate who would default on the national debt,” said Richard Sansing, an accounting professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck Business School. “There are reasonable candidates, and there are unreasonable candidates.” Another New Hampshire resident, David Dawley, who voted for Obama last time, said he was going to support Huntsman in 2012. Clearly, Huntsman has strong appeal to independents, onetime Obama voters, and moderate Republicans, which would make him the biggest threat to Democrats in the general election.
He’ll have to continue to make those kinds of inroads to compete this fall. Huntsman has 21 staffers on the ground in New Hampshire — triple the size of any other candidate’s operation — and the Granite State will be Huntsman’s main focus going forward. His biggest problem now is name recognition; he polls at 1 percent. Campaign staffers tell me that in the fall he’ll go on the air with paid advertising, which could help solve that problem. He’ll have to overcome any lingering suspicions from the base, of course, but that’s not out of the question, especially once voters start to seriously tune in. He’s carefully explained how he looks at the world; now it’s time for the world — or at least the area of the world running from Hanover to Manchester to Portsmouth — to take a careful look at Huntsman.
— Elise Jordan is a New York–based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008–09 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.