They held up signs bearing the names of countries like Nepal, Moldova, Japan. They were farm families mostly, in the Iowa town of Carroll, and this week they are hosting dozens of foreign ambassadors and diplomats in their homes.
"More open, more friendly," is the way Petr Kavan of the Czech Republic Embassy described his Iowa hosts. The diplomats are here courtesy of Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, who began organizing these get-to-know-Iowa trips during the farm depression of the 1980's. "What I want to get out of this is jobs," Sen. Grassley said while riding on one of three buses transporting the group around the state. "Export related jobs are very much higher paying jobs."
He admits it was hard in the beginning to convince diplomats to come to the heartland. "They would ask questions, 'Why Iowa?'"
The five-day trip began Monday with stops at global financial services company Principle Financial in Des Moines, then moved to a Bridgestone-Firestone agricultural tire plant, and then to Monsanto for a discussion of genetically-modified seeds--which Monsanto believes can help feed an ever-crowded planet. "They really don't know what to expect," said Monsanto's Mike Dykes about diplomats visiting an actual farm where "GMO" seeds are cultivated. "They expect it to be radically different, and when they see this corn, they see it looks like any other corn."
Sen. Grassley ate some of the GMO corn in front of his tour group, hoping to prove it won't kill you. Did he win any converts? "Uh, um," stammered Petr Kavan, the diplomat from the Czech Republic, trying to answer...diplomatically. "It's a hot topic."
Also here, the Ambassador from Brazil, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota. Brazil is Iowa's 7th largest export market, but it suffers from subsidies and tariffs which favor Iowa's corn-based ethanol to the detriment of Brazil's cheaper, cane-based product, an issue "important to Brazilian exporters as you can imagine," he said.
Deals do come out of these trips. "We've been able to draw some dialogs with different countries with their agricultural divisions to be able to expand our exports and to expand our businesses" says Bridgestone-Firestone's Ken Allen. Norman Sorensen at Principle National, which manages assets in 50 countries, says the trips have brought in new foreign clients. "It's very beneficial to us."
Sen. Grassley believes commerce can do more for peace than diplomacy, as people all over the world reach out to others for financial reason. "Those millions of opportunities everyday break down barriers and do more to bring peace to the world and understanding to the world than anything we politicians and diplomats can do."
But he says the most important thing he hopes the diplomats take away from their week in Iowa is the state's famous hospitality. It is hard to find nicer people anywhere. The week will end at the Iowa State Fair, where world leaders will be introduced to the latest fair food fad: chocolate covered bacon. If that doesn't foster world peace, what will?
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