Guest Columnist

Branstad's legacy: Ambassador's tenure in China marked by tariffs and trade wars

Was Terry Branstad an effective ambassador to China? Who is to know what issues may have been even worse, but for his intervention?

Vice President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, raise their glasses during a t
Vice President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, raise their glasses during a toast at a State Dinner at the Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa, 15 Feb. 2012. Steve Pope/Hand Out

What kind of ambassador was Terry Branstad? The most effective political appointee ambassadors for whom I worked knew how to wield influence behind the scenes, both in the country to which they were posted and in Washington, D.C., with the goal of furthering U.S. interests. Other attributes included the ability to be a key voice in policy formulation and the willingness to go to bat for their staff — the foreign service family.

Based on press reports, Branstad took seriously the job of supporting his staff during COVID, overseeing the drawdown of staff and finding creative ways to boost staff morale. Points earned.

Being a U.S. Ambassador in the Trump era, however, is much more complicated when it comes to influencing, or even implementing, U.S. policy. Some Ambassadors have chosen to please President Donald Trump, at times to the detriment of U.S. interests in the countries where they are posted. Others have failed at that high-wire act, ultimately causing the president more complications. Branstad opted to implement Trump’s erratic China policy while attracting minimal attention.

As the good soldier, for example, Ambassador Branstad carried out President Donald Trump’s tariff policy. For the former governor of Iowa who led trade delegations and undoubtedly dreamed of capitalizing on that by expanding the soybean and pork markets for his home state, it had to have been a bitter pill. Yet to influence these policies, he would have needed a reliable partner in the White House. No matter how astute the diplomat, lack of clarity, together with revolving staff and non-traditional policymaking, made that next to impossible.

Human rights could have been a signature issue for Branstad. I’m thinking in particular of the Chinese crackdown on the Muslim Uyghurs, a high profile issue on which a more normal U.S. administration would have chosen to lead, regardless of party. Branstad pushed for and eventually received permission (that’s how authoritarian governments operate) to visit Tibet, and, to his credit, he traveled widely in China. I’m not aware, though, that he ever pressed to visit Xinjiang, where the Uyghurs are interned — either for himself or for staff. Faced with a major human rights challenge and a host government that denies embassy staff permission to travel, a well-connected ambassador should be willing to exert behind-the-scenes pressure to extract that permission. Branstad may have concluded that it did not merit expending political capital. Protecting and defending Muslims has not exactly been a priority for the Trump administration and — as ambassador — Branstad is (still) the president’s personal representative in Beijing.

Branstad did take high-level flak after Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law two pieces of legislation aimed at Hong Kong, post-crackdown. This was policy crafted by a united Congress, not the Administration. The Chinese had to call it out as overreach, and Branstad had to publicly defend the U.S. move. Branstad did, I hope, score a win with the Chinese pledge to stop or slow the flow of deadly fentanyl to the U.S.

On Sept. 9, an opinion piece written by Branstad was rejected by the Chinese state media, for being “inconsistent with facts.” In that piece, Branstad accused China of “exploiting” U.S. openness. But that was a manufactured controversy. Party organs print what they want. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing knows that. Terry Branstad knows that. You play by the rules in the country to which you are posted — you can push back, but ultimately you play by them. The Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. enjoys access to the U.S. media because our government does not control our press. Different systems, different rules. An ambassador does not step down because his op-ed was rejected. He steps down because he decides it is time to go home before election results force his hand. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of “wanting to spend more time with his family.” Maybe he’ll be home in time to try to revive the flagging electoral fortunes of his political family — Iowa’s junior senator — whose campaign would arguably have been bolstered more by robust growth in overseas soybean markets.

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Was Branstad an effective ambassador? Who is to know what fires did not erupt because he tamped them down first; and what issues may have been even worse, but for his intervention? But coming full circle back to tariffs — and his resounding silence in the face of U.S. tariffs that slashed our soybean and pork exports — I concluded early on that Branstad did not wield the leverage that one would have hoped for in a well-connected political appointee. He was the good soldier. It seems a waste, considering he went in with a personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and had chaired Trump’s successful campaign in Iowa in 2016. I guess we’ll have to wait for his book.

Janice Weiner is a graduate of Iowa City West, Princeton University and Stanford Law School. She practiced law before joining the U.S. State Department in 1987, where she served for 26 years as a Foreign Service Officer. She is an at-large member of Iowa City Council.

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