America exports far more than agricultural commodities when it engages in trade relationships around the world. It also spreads freedom of speech and religion, personal opportunity and prosperity, blessings that are cherished and celebrated during the holiday season, according to a former Foreign Agricultural Service officer and ambassador who presented the keynote address at Colorado Farm Bureau’s recent annual convention.
Now vice president of international programs at Washington State University, Asif Chaudhry reflected on his wide-ranging career, the awe he felt the day he was sworn in as U.S. ambassador and his memories growing up poor in rural Pakistan.
“That I am standing in front of you today, it really is a miracle,” he said. “My wife calls me a National Geographic kid. I am one of your charity cases, and you have been very kind to me.”
“It is nothing short of a miracle and that miracle is only possible in the United States,” he continued. “When I came here, I came with nothing – enough money for one semester of college and nothing more. I ate yogurt with bread; that was my dinner. That’s what’s motivated me to go out and do some of the things I’ve done.”
Chaudhry has held a variety of assignments around the world, helping other nations improve their economies and living standards, from Russia to the Middle East.
In post-World War II Poland, he helped establish a farm extension service and a modern grading system, fueling what was to become one of the most vibrant ag sectors in today’s European Union.
In the late 1990s, following the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, he helped distribute U.S. food aid in such a way that it helped to shore up the bankrupt pension system, which had left retirees six months behind on payments. The move altered perceptions of the U.S. among the Soviet people and ultimately led to a personal meeting between Chaudhry and then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
“The U.S. was exporting $1.3 billion worth of products to them at that time. Agriculture was in fact exporting more products there than Boeing Aircraft,” he said. “All of that was shut down (when the economy collapsed.) We proposed giving them economic assistance equal to what we’d lost (in trade), and we got that program approved.”
The most humbling moment of Chaudhry’s career occurred when former President George W. Bush tapped him to be U.S. ambassador to the Eastern European republic of Muldova, a plum appointment that came as a “total surprise.”
At the time, Muldova had been a democracy for 20 years, but was still under Communist rule. Part of Chaudhry’s role was to educate people about the functioning of a true democracy. Within 18 months of landing the assignment, he watched as four new political parties were able to wrest majority control away from the Communists in a free and fair election. Chaudhry emphasized that U.S. trade is about more than selling commodities, and the U.S. military (which he served in an advisory capacity at one point) exists to do much more than fight in world conflicts.
“We assume they are there to fight wars, but really they are there to protect and maintain shipping lanes around the world, to insure peace and security and prosperity around the world. They have democratic values at their heart,” he said.
One concern he did express is the need for the U.S. to take a stronger stand against aggression, such as Russia’s occupation of Crimea and Ukraine and North Korea’s threats to the Korean border, which he described as “the most sobering thing you can see.”
“That we did not have a more of united front against the Ukrainian situation is going to haunt us for a very long time,” he said.
Scrutiny of trade and world relations has intensified following the November election, during which Donald J. Trump pulled off a stunning upset to win the presidency. In fiery campaign rhetoric, Trump vowed to re-negotiate existing trade agreements, pull the plug on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and even went so far as to suggest dismantling the World Trade Organization.
Trade advocates, farmers and many Republican legislators have chosen to remain cautiously optimistic about what a new Trump administration portends.
“We just hope they’ll show support for agriculture, and for what we do, and recognize that trade helps other markets around the world as well as our own,” said Chad Musick, of Longmont, who is vice chairman of CFB’s Young Farmers and Ranchers committee.
“Trade has been our biggest success story,” added Carlyle Currier, a rancher from Molina, who serves on the board of the U.S. Meat Export Federation and is also CFB’s vice president. “I think there’s potential (with the new administration) to keep increasing those opportunities around the world.”
Brent Boydston, CFB’s vice president of public policy, said losing forward momentum on TPP was a blow. Countries that fall within the 12-member pact contribute a quarter of a billion dollars of positive trade impact just in Colorado alone, he said.
The goal of the agreement was to increase market access in countries like Japan and Vietnam, which he said represent important growth potential.
“I was with a group in D.C. this spring that went to visit the Vietnamese embassy, and they made no secret about how much they want U.S. ag products,” said Boydston, who will be leaving the CFB staff in December to take an industry affairs position with Monsanto.