Asia Rising: Thoughts from Thailand and Laos

I'm taking a breathtaking tour of Southeast Asia en route to Beijing for the upcoming Olympic Games. The Thais and Laotians are in awe of the United States. They want to emulate us in all respects — fashion, movies, trade, you name it — and be a player on the global stage. They may not support the war in Iraq or other foreign policies of ours, but they look to us for leadership.

That's why they care so much about our elections — their economic future, in large part, rests on what our next president does or doesn't do. Everyone here knows who Obama and McCain are. When we go out to eat, our waiters ask in halting English — but English nonetheless — what we think about the candidates. They like Obama, but worry that he's inexperienced. They like McCain, and it seems like they feel some sort of kinship with him because he has spent so much time in this part of the world.

What I find interesting is how the Thais and Laotians embrace America's core values even though most of them have never traveled more than a few miles from where they live. In particular, they're big proponents of free trade. They might not know the term "free trade," but they boast about their exports — the Thais about precious stones and rubber, the Laotians about hydropower and timber.

It's to the Asians' credit that they haven't gotten caught up in all the anti-Bush hysteria that has swept Europe the past few years. They recognize that America's not about a given administration, but rather about the values and work ethic that it promotes.

We need to start focusing on them — in particular, we need to start learning Eastern languages and understanding Eastern religions. Asia's where the money is (in no small part because it's home to the world's two powerhouses, India and China), and it's where America can forge alliances based on the shifting landscape of global power.


Kathy Kemper is founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a nonprofit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership and civility locally, nationally and in the world community.