Pulling from his experiences as the former Utah governor and former ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman discussed foreign policy issues in a discussion with political science professor Peter Feaver held Monday at Page Auditorium.
In introducing Huntsman, President Richard Brodhead shared an anecdote from when Huntsman was still ambassador to China and helped free a Duke student who had been detained by local authorities in a distant province of China.
Next, Huntsman took the stage by introducing his wife, Mary Kaye—who was sitting among the crowd—and telling the audience it was her birthday. He said before he began his ultimately failed bid to become the Republican presidential nominee, she sat him down and made him promise that he would not pander or sign any pledges.
Huntsman joked that it was this promise and the fact that both former President Bill Clinton and noted liberal filmmaker Michael Moore cited him as “a Republican they would vote for” which sunk his bid for the Republican nomination earlier this year.
Many in the Republican Party felt he was tainted during the race because he had crossed party lines by serving a Democratic president in a foreign policy position, he added.
“Which, by the way I will do again since I believe in putting my country before the political,” Huntsman said.
A central theme of his talk was bipartisanship—although he never used the word itself.
“We’ve forgotten how to come together,” he said.
He also struck a more populist tenor when he described the note he left in the Utah governor office’s desk for his successor.
“The wealthy, the corporations all have lobbyists. Those who don’t, expect you to be their lobbyist.” Huntsman said, garnering the most applause he received all night.
The former ambassador described many of the problems in America that he saw in terms of the economy. While he was respectful toward President Barack Obama, he said he ran for the Republican nominee was because someone needed to re-fire the country’s economic engines.
“When you see the world from Beijing, there’s a lot of optimism there and blue skies—even though the sky is so polluted,” he said.
On the other hand, he said, America has better public institutions than China, yet it lacks that Beijing optimism. He cited three deficits—fiscal deficit, deficit in trust in government and deficit in confidence—as the reasons the U.S. is in a rut.
Huntsman said that he remembered a Chinese official who once told him, “When American loses confidence the whole world suffers.”
He maintained that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney—who he had endorsed when he conceded the primary—is better suited than Obama to reboot the economy. He dodged the question as to which presidential candidate was better suited to solve the other two deficits, but said that the solving the fiscal deficit superseded the others.
China was also one of his main talking points when he sat down with The Chronicle in the green room beneath the stage of the Page Auditorium prior to the event. He cited the U.S. economy as the main reason for America’s current antagonistic relationship with China.
Huntsman described the relationship between the U.S. and China as “the most important relationship in the 21st Century.”
“China is looked at through a prism of fear as opposed to opportunity—which shouldn’t be the case, since there is a lot of opportunity in the relationship if you play it right,” Huntsman said in the interview. “So when we had unemployment of 5 percent, China was more of an opportunity, right? Let’s get close. Let’s do cultural exchanges. Let’s trade and invest.”
However, he said when the economy changed, so did that optimistic attitude towards China.
At the end of 90 minutes, the audience gave him a standing ovation. Freshman Carrina Dong said she likes how he never seems to waver in his convictions and does not pander.
“He’s obviously really smart, and I really respect him even more [after the event] than I previously did,” she said. “He’s a really respectable guy.”
Isaac Weitzhandler, a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering, liked the speech but said he wished that Huntsman had asserted his conservative beliefs more.
“I just wish he’d owned it a little more,” he said.
Although, Weitzhandler said he was impressed that Huntsman was willing to speak before and engage with what he called a “liberal university audience.”
Huntsman will be returning to Duke for the second part of the speaking engagement Oct. 30, when he will cover domestic issues.