The impact of Iowa’s Citizen Diplomacy was on full display at the Nov. 15 dinner in San Francisco that featured a keynote address by Chinese President Xi Jinping, which drew over 600 of the nation’s most prominent business leaders.

Consider that potentially the most influential American at that event was not Elon Musk or Apple CEO Tim Cook, but rather an elderly, unassuming woman from Muscatine, Iowa, named Sarah Lande.

Sarah was one of about 10 Iowans, considered “Old Friends” of President Xi from their role in hosting the then 31-year-old county level party official from Hebei Province when he visited the Hawkeye state in 1985, who were invited to attend the dinner as special guests.

Most significantly, that Iowa group, which also included ambassador and former governor Terry Branstad, also took part in a small pre-dinner private gathering with President Xi. I participated based on my role in escorting President Xi’s father around Iowa in 1980, and then hosting the U.S.-China High Level Agricultural Symposium at the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates in Des Moines in 2012, at which Vice President Xi delivered the keynote address.

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There were about 20 additional Americans from other parts of the country who, based on their own previous relationships with President Xi, were also included in that private San Francisco event. Among them was former Missouri governor Bob Holden the Chair of the U.S. Heartland China Association (USHCA), with which I serve as a strategic advisor.

Apparently reflecting Iowa being President Xi’s first and most meaningful international experience, our Iowa group was the first to individually greet the president with Sarah Lande, who has hosted the president at her home, being at the head of the line. She was invited to stand next to President Xi in our group photo and was later seated near him at the head table during the formal dinner.

In delivering his major address to the prominent business leaders in attendance, President Xi recalled his Iowa experiences four decades ago, even remembering the street address of the Muscatine family that allowed him to sleep in their son’s bedroom. He also mentioned Iowa Gov. Robert Ray by name, noting his early visit to China in the 1970s.

All of this history was the preface to his outlining his strong preference going forward that the United States and China have a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship, which President Xi describes as “Win-win.”

In the key line of his address, however, he said that the fundamental question is “Are we adversaries or are we partners?”

So, in this major address, immediately following his summit meeting with President Biden, President Xi made an emphatic point — that, in his view, America has a critical decision to make.

When I was subsequently interviewed by the Des Moines Register, I observed that based on statements by presidential candidates in the runup to the Iowa Caucuses, it seemed likely that the official American view will be to see China and the Chinese Communist Party as an adversary. This could, in turn, put our two countries on a collision course, with potentially ominous implications for global stability.

In such a situation where the rigid political environment in both capitals seems unlikely to facilitate a course correction, one of the most hopeful paths forward may be to return to the potential of citizen diplomacy and sub-national initiatives to reset the trajectory of Sino-American relations. In that regard, Iowa, through its 50-year legacy of citizen diplomacy with China dating back to 1974 when World Food Prize founder Dr. Norman Borlaug first visited China to share his agricultural research, may be best situated to impact this situation.

In every speech and public presentation I make, I stress that the single greatest challenge that humanity will face is: whether we can sustainably and nutritiously feed the 9 to 10 billion people who will be on our planet by the year 2046, when Iowa will celebrate its bicentennial.

Africa will represent the most significant part of the challenge in that there will be an additional 1 billion people on that continent over the next quarter century.

Africa has a broad array of exceptional leaders at the forefront of development. Among them are: Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, the 2017 World Food Prize Laureate and the current president of the African Development Bank (AFDB); Dr. Agnes Kalibata, the President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA); and former Rwandan Minister of Agriculture Gerardine Mukeshimana, now the Vice President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); all of whom have taken part in the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium in Des Moines.

But what would be an agricultural initiative that could have that necessary global impact and would be politically acceptable in the U.S.?

Nobel Peace Laureate Norman Borlaug, the “Father of the Green Revolution” and founder of the World Food Prize, said: “If you want to feed Africa, build roads.”

I specifically proposed the upgrading of rural farm-to-market roads as the key to both African development and Sino-American collaboration in my presentation at the April, 2022 U.S.-China Agricultural Dialogue that the USHCA organized at Hall of Laureates in Des Moines, Iowa.

Recalling President Xi Jinping’s speech in that same building 10 years earlier, and with three American and Chinese ambassadors and other government officials participating virtually and in person, I emphasized that upgrading roads was an essential aspect of China’s spectacular economic growth. I noted that when I first arrived in China in 1979, improved rural road penetration was at less than 50%, and now 45 years later, it is near 100%.

During that same timeframe, poverty levels in China went from over 70% to near zero. This Citizen Diplomacy initiative organized by the non-partisan, non-profit USHCA outside Washington D.C. allowed government officials to interact in a positive atmosphere when such meetings were almost impossible in either nation’s capital.

With the legacy of Sarah Lande and other “Old Friends” from President Xi’s 1985 visit, combined with the role of the World Food Prize now led by Ambassador Terry Branstad, and the history of Gov. Bob Ray and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and the role of Gov. Holden and the USHCA, Des Moines, Iowa, may be just the place for another citizen diplomacy initiative to bring officials from both sides together in conjunction with those above African leaders, to create a U.S. — China — Africa partnership to uplift African agriculture and promote “Peace Through Agriculture.”

Given the many sharp political divisions in our state and our country, it would be particularly poignant to have “citizen diplomats” from both political parties join in launching this “Road to Peace Through Agriculture” initiative, which does not involve any sensitive technology, and which could, following the inspiration of Dr. Norman Borlaug, uplift the lives of a billion Africans through improved rural roads.

With China and the United States committed to provide sustained support to upgrading rural infrastructure in Africa, Citizen Diplomacy will not only be helping China and America remain at peace, but also help ensure that all 9 to 10 billion people on our planet will have access to sufficient sustainably produced nutritious food, thus meeting this great global challenge.

This essay was first published in The Des Moines Register.

Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn is president emeritus / World Food Prize Foundation and is U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia 1996 – 1999.

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