Washington • Landing in Moscow some two years ago, Mary Kaye Huntsman embraced her temporary home, posting a picture of herself and her husband, newly minted U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, strolling through the city streets.
“And the journey begins,” she wrote on Instagram.
Shortly afterward, she uploaded pictures of the ambassador presenting his credentials to Russian President Vladimir Putin and on a cuter side, an image of the American couple’s two pups, Oliver and Samy.
While Jon Huntsman, a seasoned diplomat and former Utah governor, faced a difficult challenge in representing the United States in Moscow at a time when the relationship was deteriorating, Mary Kaye used Instagram to highlight their visits to picturesque points of Russia and, of course, more dog photos. She touched on the beauty of the ambassador’s residence, the Spaso House, and the bright sunsets in Moscow, the Christmas lights in Red Square and various adventures in Russia.
As the months went on, Mary Kaye Huntsman racked up more than 9,000 followers on Instagram and became a must-watch spot for journalists tracking the ambassador’s travels.
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It’s 3:30 am in Moscow. Up bright and early saying goodbye to this enormously interesting chapter. Turning the page and a new one now begins. Thought it appropriate to stand here under our first ambassador to Russia. John Quincy Adams. Thanks so much to our @usembru friends who came out at this hour to give us one last hug. We will miss you all. We’re off!!!🇺🇸
CNN used Huntsman’s Instagram posts in a story exploring the ambassador’s expected resignation, saying her images appeared to show a “goodbye tour.” Mary Kaye Huntsman didn’t appreciate the mention, responding, of course, on Instagram.
“Our announcement will be coming soon," she posted, “and I’m sure we’ll at that point say goodbye to many friends before we leave.”
That was but a minor annoyance during a difficult two-year period for Jon Huntsman. The ambassador had to deal with a diminished staff and a closed consulate as tensions escalated between the United States and Russia in the aftermath of the latter’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Sanctions flowed both ways, and the ambassador was summoned to the Kremlin many a time to answer for U.S. actions, including in his last weeks on the job. During his stay in Russia, he also lost his father and was diagnosed with a treatable form of skin cancer.
Mary Kaye Huntsman, meanwhile, offered up a smorgasbord of happy moments, detailing their ever-expanding family’s achievements and showcasing a side of the diplomatic mission that had nothing to do with politics.
These social media posts, a former Russia ambassador says, were far more meaningful than many might expect.
“When times are tough and you’re not making a lot of progress in the government-to-government channels, that kind of public diplomacy” is important, says Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who brought up Mary Kaye’s Instagram posts in an interview that focused on Huntsman’s resignation. “She was fantastic and she should get a lot of credit for that.”
Jon Huntsman ended his tenure as ambassador last week. He did so by issuing a joint statement posted on his wife’s Instagram account and on Facebook that accompanied a video spanning their service. It began, “Bidding farewell.” And it ended like this, “We leave Moscow tomorrow morning before the sun will rise, deeply grateful and fortunate to have served at this time in history. These years and experiences have only given us a greater sense of urgency and duty going forward. We will never forget you.”
McFaul says being the spouse of a diplomat can be challenging: You’re not officially representing your country, but you are unofficially doing so.
Mary Kaye Huntsman has some experience in this role.
Her husband served as U.S. ambassador to Singapore during the George H. W. Bush administration, as deputy trade representative for President George W. Bush and later as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China. In the middle of that, Mary Kaye was the first lady of Utah, where Jon Huntsman was twice elected governor.
In Russia, Mary Kaye Huntsman was often seen at social events with the ambassador but stayed out of the news. Her Instagram postings showed the more fun side of a tough assignment.
“She did a great service to our country in the public diplomacy that she was practicing,” McFaul says.
Mary Kaye Huntsman noted that in their first posting in Singapore, social media wasn’t yet invented and in China, it was banned. In Russia, though, it was a valuable outlet.
“This provided a unique opportunity to highlight embassy and family life to local audiences through Instagram,” she says. “Since local Russian media controlled the airwaves with anti-American propaganda, this was a small way of countering this narrative. And what we found was Russians were far more open to honest discussion about the West than people realize.”
Ambassador charm school
While new ambassadors spend weeks in State Department programs to prepare them for their new roles, spouses get only a few days of training, often being told more of what they shouldn’t do rather than what they should. And it can be a challenge for some spouses who are accomplished themselves in business, philanthropy, social life or the arts. But some of those skills translate well as they become de facto hosts for other diplomats, visiting American officials and other VIP guests.
Natalie Jones is the senior vice president of external affairs at the Meridian International Center, which focuses on global engagement. She says spouses can lend a friendly face in diplomatic efforts.
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One of the great joys of this job, is being able to interact with some of the world’s finest professional diplomats. They come and then they go, all their country’s best. Tonight was one such occasion. Hosted by the ambassador of Japan, we said goodbye to our dear friends.... the Australian and Macedonian ambassadors. Bonding over shared values of democracy, human rights, and the commitment of security allies. A very special group of friends for life. @posol.australia p@kosaraa
“At Meridian, we believe that arts and culture can bridge divides, especially in times of tension around the world,” Jones says. “I think [Mary Kaye] understood the power of culture and used it to connect with people."
Spouses, Jones says, are often seen as the chief host and work to reflect the very best of their home country “whether it’s through the food they serve at official events, the art in their residences or the gifts they give. They can truly be some of America’s best ambassadors.”
It also helps to “demystify” the formality of diplomacy, Jones says.
“They serve as a link to the country by engaging directly in the culture and through things that people can relate to — food, music, art, sports — and by sharing some of their more personal and family moments,” she adds. “Culture is the ultimate leveler when it comes to making connections.”
Megan Beyer learned fast the role of being the wife of a diplomat.
Her husband, Don Beyer, was sent to Switzerland as America’s top envoy there and she was charged with setting the tone for their mission — at least the artistic, cultural and welcoming part of it.
“You know Don was doing a lot of work with bilateral meetings and all the work being the ambassador and having to carry a platform for the country and for the State Department,” she says of her husband, who is now a Democratic congressman from Virginia. “But all those soft and fuzzy things that create the atmosphere for moving the relationship forward, all of that happens in the convenings that are really more curated and created by the spouses in general.”
The spouses, Megan Beyer says, “totally transcend the politics of everything.”
She says that spouses — still a group that is primarily women but is increasingly being filled by men — can play a bigger role if they so choose. When in Switzerland, Megan Beyer noted that four of the seven members of the country’s federal council were women –— a celebratory point.
She organized an event highlighting women in leadership posts and brought in CEOs, business leaders and as a bonus, actress Geena Davis, who advocates for equal rights.
Megan Beyer’s work to celebrate the arts also earned her kudos from then-President Barack Obama, who later named her as the head of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
She says Mary Kaye Huntsman excelled at her role, even during such a challenging time in U.S.-Russian relations.
“You can really make a difference,” Megan Beyer says. “So what [Mary Kaye has] done has been incredibly impressive.”
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of former ambassador Jon Huntsman, is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.