Huntsman Speaks Out

Republican primary contender Jon Huntsman sounds off on the U.S. presidential race -- and the big issue the candidates aren't talking about.

Since withdrawing from the Republican primaries in January, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has tried to stay engaged with China, where he served as Barack Obama's ambassador from 2009-2011. But China hasn't always wanted to engage with Huntsman: In an interview with Foreign Policy in mid-October in his Washington, D.C. home, Huntsman revealed that the Chinese government canceled his visa, prohibiting him from entering the country to give a talk in September. He also spoke candidly about his primary defeat, Mitt Romney's foreign policy, and the difficulty of managing the most important relationship in the world. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: Put yourself in the shoes of the moderator at the upcoming foreign-policy debate on Oct. 22. What do you think he should ask about China?

Jon Huntsman: What are the core philosophical drivers that inform the thinking of the candidates? What are our national interests at play? How do we maximize our position in the Asia-Pacific region, understanding that China is the centerpiece geographically. And fourth, given that it is the relationship of the 21st century, how do we intend to sustain the cyclicality that is inherent in a large, complicated relationship?

FP: Let's say you and Romney were in the same room, and he were to ask you, "How should I improve my China policy? What have I been saying that I shouldn't be saying, and vice versa?"

JH: Well, far be it from me to give anybody advice. I tried that race and didn't do so well.

But I think there's one simple fact that ought to be brought out when you're talking about China, and that is that the U.S.-China relationship is only as strong as we are domestically. And I think that the best U.S.-China policy is to get back on our feet domestically, to shore up our economic fundamentals, to focus on international economics, to get our infrastructure strengthened, to improve our schools. These are all things that, [over the] long term, are going to make a stronger U.S.-China relationship. And we've got to start here -- fixing and strengthening our core. That's a message I think a lot of Americans can relate to, but the candidates don't seem to want to talk about China in the context of fixing our own house first in order to have a better relationship with China long term.

FP: What differences do you see between Romney and Obama's foreign policies?

JH: Well, they differ in some senses in the levers of power that are being pulled. I think Obama has chosen more the soft levers of power, and Romney is at least articulating some of the hard levers of power, where in reality, we need a combination of both. During campaign season, you never want to talk about anything except the hard levers of power. But we're also trying to get over 10 years of war in the Middle East that have set us back enormously economically and diplomatically, and in terms of loss of life.  And that's a reality that we're not having a conversation about.

FP: Are you surprised that China hasn't become a bigger issue in the campaign?

JH: Beyond it being used as a political tool rhetorically, we've had very little talk of China at a time when we ought to be having a substantive conversation, because it is the relationship that will matter the most in the 21st century.

FP: What's your understanding of what Chinese officials think about all this rhetoric and what's behind it? Do they see this as one of the downsides of democracy, or of Americans playing into the fears of American decline?

JH: I think it's happened for so long that they've grown to expect it during the election season. I think it affected them more in the earlier years, but now they've grown accustomed to the political cycle, just as we've grown accustomed to the leadership cycles in China, where they do the same thing to us. We just have a bigger megaphone. And they tend to be a little more sensitive, because face still matters a whole lot in terms of human interaction.

FP: So, you don't think the responses we've seen in Chinese state media outlets like People's Daily and Xinhua don't really mean anything; it's just low-level bluster?

JH: Oh, it always means something, but you have to put it in perspective. I was supposed to be there a month ago giving a speech, but they canceled my visa. Why? Because I talk too much about human rights and American values, and they know that. And at a time of leadership realignment, the biggest deal in 10 years for them, they didn't want the former U.S. ambassador saying stuff that might create a narrative that they would have to fight. I understand that. But when the transition is done, the crazy American ambassador will be let back in, and I can say whatever I want. As they used to tell me when I was over there was "Women zhongguo ye you zhengzhi"---"We have politics too in China."

FP: So they ended up letting you back in this time?

JH: They did, because I wasn't over there for a speech; I was there for a board meeting.

FP: How did they communicate that to you, that they had canceled your visa? It was just not approved?

JH: Well, the group that was bringing me in to speak, the organizers -- they had a little pressure put on them, shall we say.

FP: Subtle?

JH: Oh, I think it was pretty overt pressure.

FP: Do you think your expertise on China and your Mandarin-speaking hurt your campaign? Do you think your message was too -- I don't want to use the word "intelligent," but do you think your ability to speak on issues like China at that level was not the way to communicate?

JH: Well, to be sure, I was an imperfect messenger, so I only have myself to blame. But here's the context. You're coming out of the most compartmented, sensitive, confined relationship probably in the U.S. government, where a lot of your work is being done behind closed doors. A lot of it is stuff that no one will ever read about, and then you jump on to what is probably the most public stage in the world: that of running for the president of the United States. So the mental gymnastics that go from one job to the other -- it takes a little bit of settling in.

Update: Huntsman's office, after the interview was published, provided this clarification:

"The governor's invitation to speak, not his visa, was rescinded for political reasons. The governor misspoke in the interview, citing a canceled visa when he meant to say cancelled invitation."


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No Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership

One of Africa's top business leaders talks about the challenges of encouraging good governance.

Six years ago, Mo Ibrahim, a Sudan-born British philanthropist who made his billions selling cell phones, established an award to support good governance in Africa: a $5 million cash prize -- which includes a $200,000 yearly stipend for life -- to be awarded to any democratically elected leader who demonstrated exceptional leadership, served out their constitutionally mandated term, and, most importantly, retired when they were supposed to. The only problem is that barely anyone meets those criteria.

This week, for the third time in four years, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced that its prize for achievement in African leadership would not be awarded. "The challenge is really for people to meet that standard," Ibrahim told Foreign Policy in an exclusive interview. "We are not going to lower our standards just to be cheerleaders for Africa."

Ibrahim spoke with FP about the purpose of the award, the challenge of finding recipients, and the next generation of leadership in Africa. He also shared his thoughts on President Barack Obama's policies in Africa (Spoiler: he thinks President George W. Bush did a better job) and on the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. "I think it was a very good choice to support the European Union," he said, "because let's not forget, those Europeans caused more wars than anybody in the world."


Foreign Policy:  Can you tell us a little bit about the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, how it came about, and what you aimed to achieve with it?

Mo Ibrahim: Our solution is focused on the issues of governance and leadership in Africa. We believe that if Africa is to move forward, we need to look hard at the way we govern ourselves and also we need to look at the quality of our leadership. We will need both to move the continent forward. That's crucial. There is no other way. Nobody can come and develop Africa on behalf of Africans. Foreign aid and advice from well-wishers or good people will not be sufficient. What is needed is for us to do the hard work.

We also need to look at our leadership. And the best way we thought to do that was to try to look for African heroes, people who came to power democratically, governed well, made hard decisions, moved people out of poverty, changed the course of their country, and then when the time came, ensured a peaceful transition of power. Those are the people we need to have in Africa if we are going to fulfill our potential. And that was the purpose of this prize: to identify those people and put them up as role models -- and also to let the world know that in addition to the well known dictators, there are people doing good work in Africa, and in many cases they are not well known.

The money attached to the prize is to enable these leaders to have a life and mission after office. Our leaders in Africa have nowhere to go after they leave office. They don't have mega-dollar deals on books and memoirs, which leaders in developed countries have. We want to enable those leaders to establish their own foundations and continue to pursue the public interest.

FP: This year -- for the third time in four years -- no prize was awarded. Why is that?

MI: Because the prize committee -- I am not a member of the prize committee, of course -- set high standards. The challenge is really for people to meet that standard. We are not going to lower our standards just to be cheerleaders for Africa. We are neither cheer leading nor denigrating Africa. We have to speak the truth. If there is no winner, there is no winner. In six years, there are three winners. I think that is not a bad record. And you know what, if you look around you, can Asia or Europe produce three winners in six years?

FP: That is a fair question. But was it a difficult decision not to make the award?

MI: It's always a difficult decision to make. What's important, is when a leader is elected, they live up to [the expectations of the award]. Because if skeletons come out of the closet, that would hurt the reputation of the prize. We have to be very careful and we have to stand with whatever decision we make. To be honest, I'm very pleased with the decisions the prize committee has made to date. They have selected three people and those three people have been continuously working. They have been doing marvelous work for civil society and for Africa in the last few years.

FP: The award stipulates that the recipient must have served their term and then left office peacefully within the last three years. The logic behind this certainly makes sense, given the importance of leadership and party alternation in democracy, but are you at all concerned that by declining to make the award on such a regular basis, you are painting an overly pessimistic picture of African leadership?

MI: To be honest, it is not us. If in a year or two, there are no leaders who are up to scratch -- up to our standard -- this is not the fault of the foundation. This is the fault of African leadership, and we should not shy away from saying this. We are supporters of Africa, but very critical of Africa at the same time. That is the way to support Africa.

FP: Are we facing a leadership crisis in Africa, then, or are the challenges just extraordinarily great?

MI: We really hope that things improve in Africa. There have been some bright spots, but Africa deserves better. We think the new generation seems to be coming through, which I think will be an improvement over the previous generation of leadership.

FP: Who are the leaders in that generation? Who's the next great hope for leadership in Africa?

MI: I can't really mention names, because it would be embarrassing for our prize committee if I start suggesting names. You need to look at our good governance indices to see how things are improving in Africa. This year, the indices describe 10 years of development in Africa. And in most areas, Africa has moved forward. We are doing much better now in economic stability, education, health, and gender [equality]. But we are not there yet because we came from a very low base. So we don't need to be complacent. There are documented deficiencies and stagnations in the areas of participation and human rights and I'm not very pleased about this. So on the whole, I'm hopeful that Africa is moving forward. I hope it moves at a better and a more balanced pace.

FP: Let me shift gears for a bit and ask you about President Obama. He has only travelled to Africa once during his presidency -- a trip to Ghana in 2009. And earlier this month he was criticized by rights groups for waiving penalties for arms sales to countries that use child soldiers. Waivers went to Libya, South Sudan, and, partially, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What are your thoughts on Obama's Africa policies? Has he forgotten about Africa amid the "pivot" to Asia and the chaos in the Middle East?

MI: To be frank, I don't think President Obama gives much thought to Africa -- or gives much to Africa. Having said that, of course, I am aware of the problems Obama faced in the United States. The United States had a financial crisis in its hands, two big wars to sort out, and a logjam in Congress.  I think it has been a tough business for him -- and globally -- so that's why he hasn't had time for Africa. But I hope that if he wins, in his second term he will pay Africa the attention that it deserves.

FP: What would you want to see from Obama if he wins a second term?

MI: More engagement with Africa. More support for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which is making strides in good governance. That was a good initiative by George W. Bush, who I think did a wonderful job in Africa, actually. I think Obama needs to build on that. Of course, he has done things in the areas of health and agriculture, but we are hoping for more support.

FP: You see President Bush's policies as a model for American foreign policy toward Africa?

MI: George Bush is a hero in Africa. It is funny: In his last trip to Africa I think he was absolutely struck by the warmth of people and how he was treated as a hero when things were really going wrong in Iraq. And here was a place he did wonderful stuff and people were grateful. And I think it was probably the happiest of his trips abroad. So I hope Obama will come and have a happy trip in Africa, but we'll see.

FP: The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement wasn't the only prize to grab headlines in the last week. The Nobel Peace Prize, which went to the European Union, unleashed more than a few skeptics and critics. What are your thoughts on how that played out?

MI: I think it was a very good choice to support the European Union, because let's not forget, those Europeans caused more wars than anybody in the world. Those guys have been fighting each other and killing each other -- I mean how many people were killed in Europe in just the two world wars? Europe has been a killing machine. And for them to come together at last and have some kind of political cooperation -- that is wonderful. Because when those guys have wars, they drag everybody into it. Everybody. Even the Americans are dragged into it. So at last to have peace is wonderful. I think they really, thoroughly, deserve this peace prize.

FP: What if you had to nominate a person?

MI: The person I'd like to see is President Mary Robinson of Ireland. I think she is a wonderful women, tirelessly campaigning for human rights, for women, for gays, for peace, for climate justice. She is tireless and totally dedicated.

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