The views expressed in this article belong entirely to the author and do not represent the views of the US-China Perception Monitor or the China Program at The Carter Center.


As Donald Trump prepares to be sworn in as the forty-fifth President of the United States, he is currently in the process of selecting his Cabinet. This has led to an outpouring of speculation across news outlets, mulling over the names of individuals who may find themselves in key positions in the Trump administration.

Critics of Trump, before and after his election, have argued that Trump offers little in terms of policy besides the worryingly vague plan to “bomb the **** out of ISIS” and the oddly specific plan to place a “45 percent” tariff on Chinese products.” The devil is in the details, which Trump does not seem keen on working out.

This would instead mean that Trump’s Cabinet will be of particular importance under his Presidency. If Donald Trump does not intend to plunge himself into the details of his general policy outlook, he must choose his advisors and secretaries carefully; these individuals are likely to have major influence in the Trump administration.

A recent article in the National Review, the nation’s preeminent conservative magazine and one of the president-elect’s most vocal opponents, has offered John Bolton as a possible candidate for Secretary of State, the leading diplomat of the United States.

The article praises Bolton’s aversion to international institutions and treaties that “threaten our interests [and] sovereignty,” celebrates his positions that negotiations are not an end in themselves, but a means to ensure national interests and notes that Bolton would be an ideal pick to unite the Republican Party under the new Trump administration.

However, I, lowly student as I am, respectfully disagree with the National Review, as I do not believe John Bolton is the ideal choice to head the State Department.

For one, Bolton would be a huge step in the opposite direction for Trump. During his campaign, in a break from previous Republican presidential candidates, Trump loudly derided the W. Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, going so far as to proclaim the Iraq War “a big, fat mistake.” On the other hand, Bolton has been a supporter of the Iraq War, even up until today. The choice of Bolton would be a betrayal to those who voted for Trump on the basis of opposition to the war in Iraq.

Furthermore, for a Trump that ran his campaign on Middle East policies involving cooperation with Russia, a Secretary of State who favors American boots on the ground would be a major turn from Trump’s less militaristic approach to the Middle East. Many Americans even voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton in fear of Clinton’s plan of a “no-fly zone” over Syria that could have potentially led into a protracted conflict. However, should Trump pick Bolton, the United States not only risks a larger conflict with ISIS, but also risks a Secretary of State who would bomb both ISIS and Iran.

John Bolton would be a slap in the face of a Donald Trump electorate tired of foreign wars. Even Republicans, like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, have come out against the proposition of appointing John Bolton as Secretary of State. (The libertarian website lists other reasons for opposition to John Bolton’s appointment for Secretary of State. You can read them here.)

While I disagree with many of Bolton’s policy decisions, I do find myself agreeing with the National Review’s assessment that negotiations should not be an end in themselves, but a means to ensure national interests. However, it is for the very reason that I agree with this point that I believe that John Bolton would not be ideal candidate for Donald Trump’s Secretary of State. In his place, I would like to suggest another candidate who I believe would be Donald Trump’s ideal choice for Secretary of State: Jon Huntsman.

Jon Huntsman got his first stint at political life as a staff assistant for President Reagan. Later, during the H.W. Bush administration, he was appointed Ambassador to Singapore as one of the youngest ambassadors in United States history. He served as a Deputy United States Trade Representative during the W. Bush administration, but left in 2003 to run for governor in his home state of Utah. He served two terms as Governor where he was widely popular and created a strong economy.

During the Obama administration, Huntsman was appointed United States Ambassador to China, where he was chosen for his knowledge of the region (he was a Mormon missionary in Taiwan) and his fluency in Mandarin Chinese (though his exact level of capability in the language has been in dispute). He resigned from that position in 2011 to run an ultimately unsuccessful bid for President in the 2012 election. In 2014, he was named Chairman of the Atlantic Council, a major foreign policy think tank.

Huntsman possesses expertise and strong relations with China (despite a controversial sighting in Beijing) and the Asian region as a whole further buttressed with his experience with the Atlantic Council which follows an Atlanticist outlook of deeper cooperation between Atlantic countries through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other institutions. Huntsman is also a strong advocate of trade, having served in the Department of Commerce and as a Deputy Trade Representative. Earlier this year, he and Gary Locke, his successor as Ambassador to China, coauthored an article in the National Interest that called for the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, calling it “vital” to American interests.

I know what you are probably saying: “Trans-Pacific Partnership? NATO cooperation? Why would Donald Trump choose him? Trump opposes all of those things!” While I believe that the United States should not step away from free trade policies and should choose a Secretary of State who have the proper competence and foresight to deal with the 21st century’s wide array of problems, my response will depart from the glittery world of ideology and step into the grotesque chamber of pragmatics.

Readers of Trump’s The Art of the Deal will know that Trump’s plans come not from clearly laid out policy positions (as any reader of the news could tell you), but from persuasion and leverage. Donald Trump stylizes himself as a world-class negotiator and, by keeping his plans in the dark, he hopes to use the leverage of harsh and vague policy plans to convince foreign negotiators to accept his hidden (and possibly more feasible) goals.

Trump’s international policies will likely be a hard shift from Obama-era engagement. However, if Trump is serious about cutting the best deals for the United States, he cannot afford to completely scare away potential partners before they even come to the negotiating table. What Trump needs is not a Secretary of State who is like him in every way, but a Secretary of State who is subtler than him.

Trump makes big promises on NATO, Iran, China, and trade, but how can he bring feasible change without being able to talk with these parties at the negotiating table? Trump’s iconoclastic and bombastic temperament as well as his tendency to alienate and push away international leaders are likely to be a major setback for the administration’s foreign policy. However, the selection of Secretary of State gives Trump the opportunity to turn this weakness into a strength. To the world, Trump is another unrefined populist leader chosen by citizens looking for a change, a phenomenon not unusual among many democratic countries.

Trump needs someone who foreign leaders believe they can talk to, someone who they believe will be able to work with them.

Sending in a savvy diplomat to introduce compromises and work with foreign leaders would not only be an unexpected from the State Department, it would also allow Trump to cut better deals. Trump needs is a foil to his populist image. An individual who can lull international negotiators into complacency by harkening back to softer, more temperamental, Obama-led days. This is where Jon Huntsman enters. If Trump intends to maximize his leverage, Huntsman would be the best choice to cut the best deals.

Some may argue that someone like John Bolton, who possesses policies even harder on international leaders than Trump, would make Trump’s deals seem reasonable by comparison. However, Bolton would just be seen as Trump’s vehicle abroad. He would provide an insufficient contrast to Trump, and he would not possess the same “bait-factor” that Huntsman possesses to draw negotiators to the table.

Trump needs a moderate; he needs someone who is level-headed enough to bring world leaders to the table. Trump could introduce his terms to the extreme and Huntsman could negotiate those terms to more reasonable alternatives leaning towards what Trump actually intends to accomplish. It would be a classic case of good cop – bad cop.

The future will require what Joseph Nye calls “smart power,” a mixture between “hard power” (usually characterized as military power) and “soft power” (other influential power including economic and cultural influence). While Trump has made huge promises regarding “hard power,” his presidency could hurt America’s “soft power” in multiple arenas on the international stage, and, without both hard and soft power, a Trump administration is unlikely to create change on the international stage. The Trump administration needs a Secretary of State who would provide a counterweight to the “hard power” focus of the administration; this should be someone who will reassure the international communities that it is still worth coming to the table with America.

As someone who believes the United States must take a multifaceted approach to international affairs and needs a Secretary of State who will not frighten away America’s possible partners, I humbly recommend Jon Huntsman for the office of Secretary of State.

Written by: Aaron Walayat