‘My Biggest Concern’ Is Sustaining America’s Innovation, ‘Can-Do Ethos’

The new Atlantic Council chairman, former Utah governor and US Ambassador Jon Huntsman discussed his broad vision for US foreign policy, underscoring that a strong American role in the world relies most of all on maintaining an innovative, problem-solving approach to national challenges despite the partisan gridlock of Washington politics. In his first extended public forum since taking up the Council’s chairmanship in January, Huntsman responded to questions from journalists, business leaders, and Council members.

The conversation ranged over US ties with Europe, relations with China, trade issues and US party politics, as well as how the United States should respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Watch the video, or read some key excerpts below:

A strengthening of US foreign policy must begin at home.
“Our priorities …need very much to be based on building the fundamentals that will strengthen this nation,” he said. “And that, by extension, will allow us to engage with the world in more confident ways. …  We have a market brand in the world, as a nation, that is very vivid, wherever you travel.  … And it’s liberty and democracy, it’s human rights, it’s free markets. And we practice those imperfectly. In fact, one of my bigger gripes is that we would be a much more effective world leader if we were to practice what we preach with greater effectiveness. …”

“Rebuilding our fundamentals, … you’ve got to get the economics right, or you can’t get the politics right that follow. … America’s goodness and greatness and ability to move others, and to inspire, really is driven by what we do here, and how effectively we do it here. And when we’re weak and dysfunctional at home, that’s how we’re seen abroad – and we lose our ability to transform, shape and inspire. …

“And the second basic pillar has got to be education. … We have some work to do. But we also have answers to every one of our challenges, as it relates to education reform in this country. …

“The biggest challenge for us, my biggest concern, is that we not lose our mojo as a nation. We’re still a frontier society, in the sense that we break boundaries, we invent, we create, we innovate. … If you want to see a contrast, go to Silicon Valley … and compare and contrast the optimism and the can-do attitude that exists there with what you find in this town, which is impenetrable in its negativity and a sense that nothing will get done. We can’t work out our issues on Cap – we can’t come together as people of good common sense and reason toward a solution.”

A critical step is to win new trade agreements — and give permanent authority to US presidents to negotiate them.
Huntsman noted that the persistence of relatively high unemployment is complicating the negotiation of broad trade agreements, notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. When unemployment is low, “people have greater confidence in where their government is taking them,” with such agreements, “and they’re willing to explore new opportunities in the world, to export,” he said. The big trade deals “are two of the greatest things we’ve got going in the world,” he said. Providing the US presidency with permanent authority to negotiate such deals for an up-or-down vote in Congress (so called “fast-track” authority) “is the only way you can operate in … international economic policy,” he said. In the absence of such authority, Congress can demand changes to trade deals after they are negotiated, undercutting the US government’s “ability to negotiate with … foreign partners.”