Reuniting with “old friends” on his second trip to the U.S. in 2012, Xi Jinping, now the president of China, told the Muscatine (Iowa) Journal: “You were the first group of Americans I came into contact with … To me, you are America.”  The leader of the world’s most populous nation sits in the halls of power in Beijing, but a part of him remains in the American heartland.

Xi originally travelled to Iowa in 1985 as a student, the second time as Chinese vice president leading an official delegation interested in learning about American agriculture.

Holding the itinerary of his first visit three decades earlier, Xi spoke in 2012 to Iowa’s longest serving governor, Terry Brandstad, who relayed the conversation in a public radio interview. “’I was in your office at the state capitol of Des Moines, on the 26th day of April, 1985,'” Xi said to Brandstad. “And he said he stayed with a family down in Muscatine who had two sons in college and a 13-year-old daughter. He was very impressed with the friendliness, the hospitality, and the way he was treated in Iowa.”

As it turns out, the governor and the Chinese leader have kept in touch ever since. Most recently, Branstad met with Xi during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2013. And in 2017, Branstad was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to China, a position he can use to build on their friendship, for the good of both countries.

“When you get the opportunity to meet somebody in their home or in a private setting, you get to know them differently than at a state dinner,” said Chris Steinbach, the former editor of the Muscatine Journal. “Clearly that worked on Mr. Xi when he was here [in 1985].”

Formative leadership experiences
Those formative experiences from more than 30 years ago can pay countless dividends in goodwill at a difficult time in U.S.–Chinese relations.  The same is true for hundreds of world leaders who visited the U.S. as either students or as part of professional delegations.

In fact, alumni of international exchange programs include 565 current or former heads of foreign governments, 82 Nobel Prize winners, 58 ambassadors to the United Nations, and 26 heads of international organizations.

These future leaders ­– from presidents of Poland and Pakistan to Swaziland and Yemen – came to understand the people, ideals, interests and challenges of America in ways that are impossible to gauge from just reading books, news stories or even intelligence reports. As Defense Secretary James Mattis has suggested, the way to reduce the possibility of war is to increase people-to-people diplomacy – which is at the heart of cultural and educational exchanges.

Seeing democracy in action
The current president of Afghanistan, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, attended Lake Oswego High School, in Oregon, as an exchange student almost 50 years ago. Ghani credits his experience as “opening his eyes to the power of citizenship.” As a student council member, he said, “It was the first time I ever saw students entrusted to make decisions, to decide how money should be spent. And we were held accountable for our decisions.”

“During that year, Ghani began to imagine how engaged citizens could fix a broken system. That bright vision has not dimmed,” according to a 2008 article by Suzie Boss, “Becoming Citizens: A Stint in Student Government Can Shape One’s Future.”

In Latin America, Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze, former president of Bolivia and chief justice of the country’s supreme court, noted that the year he spent in Springfield, Missouri, as a high school exchange student, helped him decide to study law.  Night after night in 1973, the teenager from Cochabamba, a city in the Andes mountain range, joined his host family and millions of Americans as they watched the Senate Watergate hearings unfold on television. Thinking about the brutal dictatorships back in Bolivia at the time, Rodriguez was mesmerized by a political system that brought down its president without a shot.

Cesar Gaviria, the president of Colombia from 1990 to 1994 and later secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), spent a year as an exchange student in the United States with AFS Intercultural Programs.  While in office, he guided the contentious process of writing a new constitution designed to break the traditional oligarchical control of the government, and he accelerated a peace effort that led three guerrilla armies to lay down their arms.

The current head of the influential International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, spent her senior year at a private school in Bethesda, Maryland, and interned for then-U.S. Congressman William S Cohen.  According to the Washington Post, Lagarde was tasked with translating mail sent from Cohen’s French-speaking constituents in Northern Maine during the height of Watergate – giving Lagarde special insights and a front-row seat to a historic governmental crisis.

And Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations from 2007-2016, was an exchange student in California in 1962. There, the 18-year old stayed with a school teacher and her husband, who remember that Ban told them he wished to become a diplomat.

American college and beyond

For those heads of state who went to college in the U.S., the personal and professional impact was also significant.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the first democratically elected prime minister of Pakistan who oversaw the ratification of a new democratic constitution in the early 1970s – and whose daughter also became prime minister – was the first Asian student to be elected to the student council at the University of California at Berkeley. Bhutto, who graduated in 1950, also volunteered for the election campaign of Democrat Helen Gahagan for a seat in the U.S. senate, the campaign won by a young Congressman named Richard Nixon.  Nixon And Bhutto met several times as leaders of their country.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the president of the Philippines from 2001-2010, attended the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University before transferring back home to earn her undergraduate degree. While at Georgetown from 1964-1966, she was a classmate of Bill Clinton. During his 1994 visit to the Philippines as U.S. President, Clinton reflected on his friendship with Arroyo, who was then a senator.

Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia who graduated from Kansas University in 1973, said his experiences as a student and as a member of the Delta Upsilon fraternity helped form the political ideals he has used to fight for economic reforms, open up a peace process in a long-running rebel dispute and crack down on drug traffickers.

Santos was the sole recipient of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.

It was at KU, he said, that he learned about the strong commitment to freedom, democracy and the “American way of life.” Speaking to students in 2012 on his first trip back to KU since earning degrees in economics and business, he said, “It was here that the seed was put, and it has been growing for the past 40 years.”

Describing himself as a “common student,” he immersed himself in American life, learning to play poker at KU, going to rock concerts, and buying his first car with money he made by investing his poker winnings in Pizza Hut.

Israel’s long-standing president, Benjamin Netanyahu, studied at MIT from September 1972 to May 1976, a 23-year old freshman and Israeli war veteran who proved to be a young man in a hurry as he earned two degrees-in architecture and management. He was on his way to a doctorate in political science before ending his studies abruptly to return to Israel in June 1976, following the death of his older brother in a commando raid that freed passengers on a hijacked plane in Entebbe, Uganda.

At one point, Netanyahu told his MIT professors he hoped to use his combined studies in management and architecture towards alleviating Israel’s acute housing shortage. He also wrote a paper for a graduate level course at Harvard in 1973 on a prophetic subject – the prospects for an Arab-Israeli pluralistic security community.

Even the late Margaret Thatcher, the iconic UK prime minister from 1979 to 1990, participated in the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) as a mid-level parliamentarian in 1967.

In her book, The Path to Power, she wrote, “For six weeks I travelled the length and breadth of the United States. The excitement which I felt has never really subsided. At each stopover I was met and accommodated by friendly, open, generous people who took me into their homes and lives and showed me their cities and townships with evident pride.”

“There was no doubt ‘she was really grateful’ for her trip,” said William Galloway, a political officer of the U.S. Embassy in London who selected Thatcher for a visitors grant.  “She had been granted access to some key figures in the Johnson administration and in Congress, as well as being able to meet several of the top economists who had an influence on her intellectually in the past. For a politician yet to achieve a governmental position, it had been a program of a high order.”

Shaping world views, stripping away myths
Meanwhile, exchange participants who are less famous than a Margaret Thatcher are no less consequential. Thousands of teachers have trained in the U.S. over the past few decades, going on to inform the world views of millions of students. Ninety-four percent of exchange students from Muslim-majority countries report having a deeper, nuanced, and favorable view of American culture after their year in the U.S., according to a State Department survey.

It stands to reason that if international exchange programs help so many young minds forego reaction and xenophobia and grow to be more compassionate and open-minded adults, the chances are good that some will use their experience as a leader on the national or world stage.

“It strips away some of the mythologies that poison people’s opinions about a country if they’re negative. They give a chance for the visitors to meet citizens, meet average people, so the country becomes not a news-media-produced abstraction, but real people.” said Philip Seib, Professor of Journalism, Public Diplomacy, and International Relations at the University of Southern California.


written by Don Heymann, guest blogger