One of the more subtle powers Gov. Terry Branstad will have as U.S. ambassador to China is the ability to select artwork for his official residence in Beijing. 

As ambassador, he can choose from a wide selection of art owned by the State Department, as well as from many public and private collections, said Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation and a former ambassador to Cambodia. 

While in Cambodia, Quinn said, “I selected 17 or 18 pieces from the Brunnier Museum at Iowa State.” Paintings of the Loess Hills and other Iowa scenes gave him many opportunities to talk about Iowa, its people, agriculture and industries.

“When I was in the Philippines,” Quinn added, “I had an Iowa State Fair Night. We invited all the locals who had gone to Iowa State or Iowa — and it was a big number — and we played games you’d play at the fair.” 

Often, Quinn said, “it’s the little things that people remember.” And little things, he added, can lead to better understanding and ultimately to better relations involving trade, human rights and other concerns. 

In fact, he said, it was the little things that Chinese President Xi Jinping remembered from his 1985 visit to Iowa that ultimately prompted President Donald Trump to nominate Branstad as our country’s next ambassador to China.

During that visit 32 years ago, Xi was a county-level official who struck up a friendship with Branstad, who was serving his first term as governor. That relationship has endured for more than three decades and is memorialized in a painting that hangs in the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, near Quinn’s office. 

It’s personal relationships, Quinn said, like the one between Branstad and Xi that can result in significant progress.

One question that hangs over Branstad as he prepares for his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate is how much influence he will have with his boss, President Trump, who was elected in part because of his support for protectionist trade policies. 

Iowa, as most people known, is a free-trade state that benefits when trade barriers are low, allowing farmers and farm equipment manufacturers to obtain better prices in international markets. 

Trump blames free trade for the loss of significant numbers of U.S. jobs to foreign manufacturers. 

But economists worry that, if Trump is able to raise tariffs on imported goods, Iowa’s economy will suffer from a backlash of foreign tariffs aimed at U.S. products, including corn, soybeans and farm equipment.  

I asked Quinn how much independence Branstad will have as ambassador to China.
“For most ambassadors, there is not very much,” he said, because their mission is to convey policies worked out in Washington and put in writing by the State Department.  

But, he added, the State Department is a huge bureaucracy with institutionalized procedures and policies that provide varying degrees of flexibility in carrying out policy, as well as providing feedback. 

Plus, Quinn noted, Branstad appears to have the ears of both Trump and Xi and may be able to facilitate options that could benefit both nations. For example, he said, Trump has already signaled that while he opposes multinational trade agreements, like the Trans Pacific Partnership, he likes bilateral agreements. 

As ambassador, Branstad will command an immediate staff of 700 at a 10-acre compound in Beijing, and he will oversee five American consulates throughout China that employ thousands. 

In many ways, it is a job much bigger than governor of Iowa. 

But if Branstad follows Quinn’s advice, every evening when he returns to his official residence in Beijing, hanging on the walls will be pictures reminding him and his international guests of where he came from and why he is there.