Tribune editorial: Ambassador Huntsman should stay put

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., U.S. Ambassador to Russia, during an Ambassadorial Swearing in Ceremony at the Utah Capitol Saturday, October 7, 2017.

President Theodore Roosevelt wisely advised to speak softly and carry a big stick.

It’s the way effective diplomats navigate an increasingly complex and hostile world, searching for common ground while knowing American strength will be there to back them up.

That’s why President Trump’s confounding performance in Helsinki is so disturbing. Deferring to a brutal despot on the world stage rightly prompted outcry among Republicans and Democrats alike as well as raised questions about whether Jon Huntsman, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, should resign in protest.

One could argue, as a columnist for this newspaper did, that it’s time for Huntsman to cut bait on his diplomatic mission. Interviews from the Sunday morning talk shows underscore that Huntsman and his team of competent, courageous foreign service officers spent hundreds of hours orchestrating the delicate meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, advising the White House of potential minefields and setting out clear policy goals. And from the outside, it’s reasonable to conclude that Trump threw out that carefully crafted script, prompting the question: What good does it do to advise a president only to be ignored?

And yet.

There are significant reasons for wanting Huntsman to remain in Moscow. Someone needs to mind the store. Someone needs to hold the nation’s interests above his own. Someone needs to try to reconstruct whatever relationships aren’t completely in tatters and put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The U.S. needs competent, professional and, yes, patriotic national security and foreign policy teams in place, now more than ever. And there’s no more competent, professional and, yes, patriotic diplomat than Ambassador Huntsman.

Sure, our opinion is tainted by family bonds, but his credentials cannot be ignored. First in Singapore, then in China and now in Russia, Huntsman has served both Republican and Democratic presidents and can vouch for the power of diplomacy. His role as chairman of the Atlantic Council, America’s leading think tank in international affairs, gives another nod toward his unusual qualifications. Ever-mindful of consequences and ever-seeking solutions, Huntsman understands the value of top-tier staff working with their international counterparts to dive into detail, build productive relationships and educate elected officials.

We need the most qualified and experienced diplomat holding the top post in one of our most important and volatile relationships. If Huntsman resigns, who steps in? Where does that leave us?

The mission in Russia is already running short-handed due to the recent expulsion of scores of U.S. diplomats. This burden plus what could be a long and arduous process for a replacement. This is not about making a good headlines for the 24-hour news cycle. This is about what is in the best interest of our country, and the world.

Which means, for now, Huntsman should stay put.

Editor’s note • Ambassador Jon Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.