Back to school for Branstad: Ambassador 101 required before Beijing

Source: By Kyle Munson, Des Moines Register • Posted: Friday, May 12, 2017

Gov. Terry Branstad answers questions from members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing as the U.S. Ambassador to China.

Gov. Terry Branstad’s confirmation by the full U.S. Senate to become the next Chinese ambassador seems all but a foregone conclusion.

At least it’s more of a sure bet than whether his successor, Kim Reynolds, has the constitutional authority to appoint a new lieutenant governor.

Branstad’s recent hearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a two-hour love fest. Our governor certainly sounded like the same old Branstad, ready to barnstorm China by traveling to each of its 23 provinces (including Taiwan) annually as a Far East echo of his 99-county retail politicking ritual here in his native state.

Except that before Branstad takes up residence in Beijing, the nation’s longest-serving governor must make a stopover in Washington, D.C., to attend ambassador school and learn some of the finer points of his new job.

He must enroll in a three-week crash course on what it means to be an ambassador in practical, everyday terms.

Branstad, 70, earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1969 and a law degree from Drake University in 1974. He also oversaw the education of osteopathic doctors as president of Des Moines University from 2003 to 2009.

So I expect him to breeze through this curriculum at the U.S. State Department’s Leadership and Management School within the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, Va.

“These are smart, talented, accomplished people,” Michael Murphy, associate dean of the school, said of newly appointed ambassadors. “However, they don’t always know the State Department, and they don’t know an embassy or how it works.”

Somebody like Branstad at least has heaps of experience working within a government bureaucracy versus, say, his business-mogul boss in the White House who just fired the FBI director.

Yet the governor faces a daunting assignment. He will assume command of a compound with eight buildings on 10 acres that houses some 47 different agencies of the U.S. government and nearly 1,000 employees. He also will oversee five other consulates scattered around China.

When I spoke to Murphy, he and his colleagues had just been visited that morning by U.S. Sec. of State Rex Tillerson, who reiterated that China is one of our key modern outposts, if not the most crucial.

Political appointees vs. career ambassadors

David Firestein agrees. He spent 18 years as a career diplomat and has been on both sides of the desk, so to speak, at FSI. He has taught among its adjunct faculty. And his nine years overseas included five in China.

He’s now a senior vice president and the Perot Fellow at the EastWest Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in D.C.

Firestein calls the U.S.-China tie “the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world, and in the history of the world.”

And soon it will be in the hands of a political appointee rather than a career diplomat — albeit an appointee whose unique “old friends” status with Chinese President Xi Jinping made him a ringer for the job. About one-third of U.S. ambassadors, like Branstad, tend to be appointed from outside the foreign service.

“I can’t think of another country in the world,” Firestein said, “in which political appointees figure as prominently, numerically and statistically in the ranks of ambassadors, as it is in the U.S.”

“Most other countries don’t have the challenge from the training standpoint.”

Branstad traipses around Iowa with a plainclothes State Trooper as bodyguard. Even within the State Capitol he’s fairly accessible. But in China he will be under the protection of U.S. Marines.

Secrecy in Iowa tends to mean a proprietary recipe for some diner’s delicious pork tenderloin. But parts of the embassy in Beijing, built in 2008, will be shrouded in more secrecy and security than Branstad likely has encountered in his life.

As governor, Branstad has wrangled with the 1980s farm crisis or flooding disasters among his staple emergencies. Now he enters a world where he can’t be sure when he might whipsaw from the threat of nuclear warheads in North Korea to an American couple trying to adopt a Chinese baby.

Hence the need for FSI schooling for Branstad and his colleagues getting swept up in the global tumult of the Trump era.

They will receive a half day of crisis management training among their coursework. (Iowa’s own Amb. Ken Quinn, now president of the World Food Prize, has lectured on crisis management at the FSI.)

The first week of ambassador school, Murphy said, focuses on leadership style.

The second week is dominated by foreign policy priorities.

And the third week is used to hone public diplomacy and media skills.

A governor tends to get used to speaking for himself, Firestein said, and answering only to the voters.

“That’s not something you can do when you’re a U.S. ambassador,” he said.

The specific text of what ambassadors say, Quinn and others have observed, often is more important than how they say it. Sticking to script can be part of the essential training.

The average domestic politician, Firestein said, must become “less focused on the word ‘I’ and more focused on the word ‘president.'”

Press conference role-playing

The third week of ambassador school sees students pair up for classroom role-playing to help prepare them for facing the international media as a diplomat.

“They take turns sort of peppering one another with hard questions and testing their responses,” Murphy said.

The sessions are even recorded and played back to them.

Each ambassador also has access to an executive coach who makes contact before the classes and sticks with them as they assume their post.

One particular challenge for Branstad: The Chinese tend to be known as ruthless negotiators. The vast majority of their diplomats receive elite training in the fine art of haggling. (“They actually have for their government people a negotiating school, and I sure wish we had something like that,” former Amb. Harold Geisel said in a 2006 interview with the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. “No one is allowed to go on their teams until they’ve been to the negotiating school.”)

Branstad’s three weeks don’t make room for such rigorous prep. But Murphy pointed out that the governor will be able to rely on seasoned staff in Beijing.

And Firestein praised what he called the “political sensibility, and if I can put in kind of crass terms, a kind of back-slapping ability to bond with people” that appointed ambassadors bring to the job. He worked for Jim Sasser, the senator from Tennessee who spent a few years in Beijing as President Clinton’s ambassador to China.

The personal politicking skill of an appointee “is a little less natural in the diplomatic world and can be an asset,” he said, “and I’ve seen it be an asset.”

So maybe Branstad’s plan to barnstorm China on a charm offensive, similar to his decades on the Iowa prairie, stands a chance to pay him dividends in the diplomatic chess game.