Expatriate in Shanghai Inspired by Asian Optimism

Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, is living in Shanghai this year. She finds a palpable contrast between Asian optimism and American pessimism and says that embracing American values once again is the key for national confidence to come surging back.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Commentator Anne-Marie Slaughter is currently spending a year in China. Slaughter is dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. And she says, one particular thing about the Chinese people that stands out - their optimistic attitude. They seemed to think they can do anything. Slaughter says these days, she misses that kind of excitement here in the U.S.

Ms. ANNA-MARIE SLAUGHTER (Dean, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University): Creative, confident and cool. An Australian journalist used those adjectives recently to describe his image of America when he was growing up. It seems very far from how we see ourselves today.

I'm living in Shanghai this year, taking a sabbatical with my husband and children. And the contrast between Asian optimism and American pessimism is palpable. One of the English-language TV channels here often runs an ad for an insurance company that shows Asian families faced with unexpected expenses — a new baby at midlife, college tuition for a gifted child, and offers the financial advising to make them possible. The tagline sums it up: Be Life Confident. A new book out by Singapore's Kishore Mahbubani is called, "The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East."

And when I toured an industrial park recently, roughly 10 squares miles including two major universities campuses, research facilities for a dozen global companies and a park, and apartment complex, all built within the last five years. The guide turned to me and said, in China, anything is possible.

This kind of confidence can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It fuels a creative energy and a willingness to tackle challenges - a secret of success. The flipside, though, is that a long enough string of failures can sap confidence so severely that it can take a generation to restore.

For example, when I lived in England in the early 1980s just after Margaret Thatcher came to power, the national mood was as grey as the weather. Drunks sat on street corners, the pound was sinking, and even college students were on the dole. London's grand buildings testified to the glories of past empire, but no one seemed to know how to point the way forward.

To avoid a similar fate, our next president must begin by tackling and reversing the national mood. The place to start is by recovering our values -the principles of liberty, democracy, equality, justice, and tolerance that inspired our founders and continue to inspire people all over the world.

I gave a talk recently, just after the demonstrations in Tibet started, and a Chinese member of the audience asked me if American democracy would condone the kind of violence that was perpetuated against Han Chinese in Lhasa. I said that a democratic government could not accept ethnic or religious violence any more than an authoritarian government could. But the difference is that Western democracies have learned - often the hard way - that peaceful protest should be tolerated and even encouraged. That's a critical difference and one to be proud of.

Our values have renewed us many times in our history. If we can embrace them once again and prove to ourselves and to the world that we are actually practicing what we preach, our confidence will come surging back. And with confidence we can ensure that the 21st century belongs not just to Asia but to everyone.

NORRIS: Anne-Marie Slaughter is dean at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. She's spending the year in China.

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