For all their political differences, Barack Obama and John McCain share a life-changing, though sharply different, personal experience: they both spent long stretches of their early lives in Asia; Obama as a boy in Indonesia, McCain as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Asian relations have not topped the presidential candidates’ list of concerns, with Americans worried about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a weakening economy.
But the next US president, whichever man wins, will have a perspective on a critical region unlike any of his predecessors.
“Most Americans don’t know Asia,” Jonathan Adelman, a professor of international studies at the University of Denver, said. “These people had intensive, multi-year experiences at important times in their younger life, when it would matter.”
It is difficult to predict how their Asia experiences might influence US policies when either Obama, a Democrat who has a solid lead in most polls, or the Republican McCain takes office in January. “But there is clearly some empathy there,” Adelman said. “They’re not going to stereotype the other side after their very intense personal experiences.”
Obama or McCain would bring a unique, deeply personal Asia connection to a White House that will face a nuclear-armed, confrontational North Korea; a struggling Pakistan that terrorists are using as a haven to attack US troops in Afghanistan; and an increasingly powerful China that can help or hinder American interests around the world.
Ralph A. Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank, says that people in Southeast Asia see Obama as “one of us.”
But, he said, “expectations may be too high. When Obama, if elected, does the normal things US presidents do to protect and promote US interests, Asians may be more disappointed that he did not put them first.”
Cossa said national interests drive policy decisions more than personal experiences.
Both candidates, he said, “have more experience and association with Southeast Asia than any former US president, but that will not make Southeast Asia a higher priority in Asia, much less in the world.