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Transcript Talks: Interview with Glenn Lau-Kee, Chairman of the US-Asia Institute

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

Conducted by Austin Myhre and edited by Austin Myhre, Stephanie Cannon, and Pradanya Nagru.



The following transcript is from an interview with Mr. Glenn Lau-Kee, a lawyer and chairman of the US-Asia Institute. The text has been edited for clarity and flow.


Austin Myhre: Mr. Lau-Kee, I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me, as I interview you on behalf of the Loch Johnson Society at the University of Georgia. We're a nonpartisan, student-run foreign policy group, and our goal is to provide readers with analysis of developments in the international space. We have not, however, contextualized important international actors. And, as you mentioned before we started recording, U.S. foreign policy is increasingly gravitating toward Asia, so the work of the US-Asia Institute is becoming more important than it already is. My goal today is to profile the US-Asia Institute, or USAI as it’s abbreviated, and share its work with our students. So, to start: could you tell us who you are and how you got involved with USAI?

Glenn Lau-Kee: I'm a lawyer, admitted to practice in New York. After I graduated from Yale University and the Boston University School of Law in 1974, my first job was with Coudert Brothers, then an international law firm with offices in Hong Kong. Of course, most major law firms are international these days, but at the time, we were the only American lawyers there, and it was a very different atmosphere. Hong Kong was still a colony, and the local Bar Association was not particularly welcoming to American lawyers. Fast forward, I came back to New York. In 1979, my family and a couple other families, Konoshima and Sugarara, helped create USAI. It started with the idea that Asian Americans had something to contribute to the conversation between countries and peoples of the United States and Asia as well as act as a bridge to a large extent. Early on, the emphasis was heavily on China and Japan, and the State Department was very involved.


The US-Asia Institute is non-partisan, and we don’t do advocacy—I think that’s very important. We do not take a position on any particular topic. Instead, we have a very clear mission to facilitate dialogue, with the goal of promoting understanding between both the peoples and the governments of the United States and Asia. So, how do we do that? Well, you’re familiar with the Thai American National Internship Program, so I’ll focus on that. We have similar programs with the Philippines and Mongolia. Here’s the idea: let's identify the Thai Americans who grew up here; let's get them acquainted with what the Embassy does, and therefore with their home country, which they have a cultural tie to in most cases; and then, let's have them work in Washington, D.C. with an organization to understand how the government works, and possibly in the future, in some capacity they'll act as a bridge between the United States and their country of heritage. Here, you can clearly see the facilitation and the bridge. But, as you know, we do a wide range of things.


The real task of our Institute is to figure out where those conversations should take place. For example, we take Congressional members and their staff on delegations to Asian countries to gain a better understanding. We also bring speakers to the U.S. for our 101 Briefing Series, which include China 101, Japan 101, Korea 101, ASEAN 101, India 101, and now Central Asia 101. Through conferences, off-the-record briefings, people-to-people exchanges, and other interactions, USAI has kept channels for dialogue open for more than 40 years. Recently, we were given what I consider a compliment by one of the embassies. They said, “There are a lot of organizations that just talk, talk, talk. But you're different. You just do it.” We are less concerned with the public aspect than what we can achieve. There's a lot going on in our organization; we're engaged in a lot of things, but we don't broadcast everything.

Austin Myhre: I think a good way to explain your mission is through the programs you offer. Another program that fascinates me is your Rule of Law (ROL) Exchange programs. When it started, it was Chinese legal students coming to America to understand our system; now, you’ve taken a reciprocal approach by bringing American legal students to China. Could you talk about that program and its purpose? And, maybe why law students and not undergraduates?

Glenn Lau-Kee: Right, the Rule of Law Exchange Program was pioneered by Matthew Szymanski, and it took a lot of work to put together. Of course, China has a different legal system than ours, and the inspiration was to foster understanding of how and why these systems differ. So, the ROL Program brings Chinese law students to Washington, D.C. to expose them to the institutions and officials of the US government and legal system. The other program now brings American law students to China. By immersing top law students in each other’s systems, we hope this investment in future leaders will help further develop China’s legal system and support U.S.-China relations. I’ve seen positive responses to this program, when I’ve hosted meetings that the Chinese law students attended. They are engaged, their English is very good, and they see that there’s a place for understanding U.S. law. To add to that, at one of the final sessions of last year’s ROL Program, there was a debate. The law students took different sides as to which legal system was better, and it was a very interesting debate. They really went at it, and you could tell that there was a full engagement about the legal systems. In the spirit of what our mission is, the more interaction and engagement with each other, the more we can learn.


I also want to offer some anecdotes as to why we think these programs are important. Around 2014 or 2015, I was president of the New York State Bar Association, and I made remarks at a ceremony admitting lawyers into the New York State bar. I wanted to see how many lawyers were international, and when I asked, there were a tremendous number of countries. But, when I asked how many of you are from China, a huge section of the audience rose up, and it was really quite interesting. As more lawyers work in an international capacity, it is crucial that we facilitate understanding. And, another anecdote: I remember one of our delegations had lawyers and law professors discussing China’s new national security law that everybody in the United States was concerned about. One of the law professors from China said, “you have to understand: when we started out, we had no judges for courts. All of the judges were military officers.” He says, “we are just getting to the point now, just maturing, where our legal system has trained judges and lawyers. The U.S. has a relatively mature legal system, and we're just developing our own.” I thought this was an interesting comment, because it emphasizes that there is a lot to understand between our systems, which makes our programs very valuable.


Austin Myhre: Absolutely. You mentioned the Thai-American National Internship Program and also some of the adjacent programs you have with Mongolian-American and Filipino-American students. I think it's great for two reasons: for increasing the civic engagement of traditionally underrepresented communities and for strengthening the cultural ties of future American leaders to Asian countries. Could you speak more about these programs? What was the original idea behind these programs, and does the organization have an interest in expanding them?


Glenn Lau-Kee: The initial idea came up in a conversation between myself and the Thai Ambassador at the time. There existed programs where Thai nationals would come to the U.S. to gain an understanding of the U.S. legal system, but nothing of substance regarding Thai-Americans and any exchange of culture; and, the Ambassador really wanted to accomplish something there. So, the focus became what could USAI offer that the Thai Embassy could not—leveraging connections to find resources and internship positions for Thai-American students in Washington, D.C. And, that’s exactly what the Thai-American National Internship Program (TANIP) does, providing Thai-American students with the opportunity to intern in various offices of elected officials, public agencies, or private organizations at the national level. We were all very happy with the outcome of the first program, so we continued it. A few years later, one of our trustees, a Filipino-American, became very interested in this program and funded the startup of the Filipino-American cohort. The Mongolian Embassy heard of this program and also became interested. The process of developing that program was noteworthy, because they said that most of the Mongolian Americans were in the DMV area. Our hesitation was that USAI had no way of reaching out to those people; the embassy said, ‘we do.’ We said, “you get them to us, and we’ll sort them out.” Right now, they’re very productive programs. We keep the past participants very engaged, so we continue to build up a community of people who have good insights. To the point of expanding, many embassies are interested, but it's not an easy job to place all these people, and so we have to be careful that we don’t overdo it.

Austin Myhre: That's very interesting, and they are great programs. Thinking about the role you play in these programs more broadly, I want to talk about how USAI positions itself to be effective in a TANIP or any other program. In diplomacy generally, states have different security concerns and objectives, and if your goal is to bridge these divides, differences, or even misconceptions, how does USAI position itself to be effective? When tensions are high, rhetoric is inflammatory, how does USAI keep people at the table?

Glenn Lau-Kee: That's the sixty four thousand dollar question, isn't it? It's what occupies my waking hours. It’s number one. I’ll try to answer that in multiple ways. First, we are flexible in where and how we position ourselves. We don’t restrict ourselves to the national level. We also engage at state, provincial, and even sub-provincial levels. Second, other organizations’ purpose is to advocate, whereas USAI’s purpose is the exchange of information, not advocacy. Our approach is also flexible, and it has to be. We’re a small organization, so we don’t have the luxury of saying, “why don’t we try this? Why don’t we try that?” We need to have a clear idea of how we’re going to be effective in increasing the understanding of a particular area between two parties. On the other hand, these things can be difficult to measure, so we always assess and reassess afterward. We also know that no one approach will always be effective. I like to think that we’re innovative in that regard. Let me give you an example of an innovative sub-national event: the River-to-River Initiative. We took representatives from states along the Mississippi River and from provinces along China’s Yangtze River, and we met in Wuhan and again in Beijing to discuss river issues. From all accounts, it was so engaging and interesting for the participants; they wanted to do it again. There are other interested countries, like Cambodia, because river issues are a huge deal when you think about the Mekong River. For example, they use the Mekong for water and transportation. In the United States, water and river issues are becoming very important. So, this is one of the ways we choose our issues. We ask ourselves, “Is there anything we can add to a topic?” Of course, there are issues with a life of their own, like Taiwan and Xinjiang, where there’s nothing we can currently add. In a sense, though, that leaves a whole lot we can do. We take a broad view of the environment, which is constantly changing, and then we select the topics and the points of engagement where we can offer something. And, as I said, when we finish an event, we assess. We ask, “is this worth following up on? Is there a continuing conversation to be had?” All of these different factors allow us to be most effective.

Austin Myhre: I love the River-to-River Initiative. Now, I want to flip that question, looking at having constructive conversations from a different angle. Is there anything countries can do to position themselves better for finding more mutually beneficial policies or at least having constructive conversations?

Glenn Lau-Kee: That’s a hard one. I’m not sure we're at a point where the countries understand each other sufficiently to engage in very productive conversations. But, that’s a process, and that’ll always be an issue to some extent. A while ago, I had lunch with an embassy official who asked me, “of these three things—trade, security, and culture—what’s the most important?” I said, “culture.” You have to start with culture, because if you get that wrong, you risk getting the other two wrong. I mean, on trade, everybody wants trade, no matter what else is going on. A robust trade relationship has a great, steadying influence, especially when times are difficult politically. You hope that militaries are sufficiently disciplined, so that incidents can be avoided or controlled. However, you never understand each nation’s military or diplomatic strategy, and no one will reveal this strategy. So, we have to start with culture. When countries disagree on a clear understanding of each other, of their history, their culture, well, that’s okay; they’re not going to agree on everything. When there is a disagreement based on a lack of understanding or a misunderstanding, that’s a concern. I don’t know if I answered your question directly, but if we have more opportunities for countries to exchange information, especially about culture, through bringing in different leaders, in policymaking, in trade or business, in diplomacy, we can begin to have tough conversations with clearer understanding. And, that’s exactly what we try to do.

Austin Myhre: Your point on culture is fascinating. You mentioned business leaders and more; why does USAI find it important to go beyond the policymaker? Why bring in the academics, business leaders, and others?

Glenn Lau-Kee: At least for our delegations and our briefings, we try to achieve a presentation of a range of views, and sometimes that deepens understanding. It also depends on your audience, too. You will see that, and I will just say some countries, some countries will always give a fully vetted position and talking points, from top to bottom. On the U.S. side, it is much more free wheeling, and there are many differences of opinion. When I visited this one embassy, they said, “it’s hard for us to understand what the U.S.’s policy is.” I said, “when we talk to you, we always get a fully vetted position, and it’s consistent, but we’re not sure we ever drill down and get beyond it. From the U.S., you'll get a response from one person saying, ‘well, this is what I think, but my colleague across the aisle has a different position.’” You're always going to get a range of positions from the U.S., rather than “this is our policy.” In my personal observations, I have found that part of what leads to better understanding is exposure to a range of perspectives. And, that’s why, for example, we bring in leaders like academics. Often those conversations are the most interesting, because they tend to be much less constrained in what they say than a government official. Their role is to think outside the box.


Austin Myhre: That's great. You’ve emphasized it a few times, but I love the flexibility of USAI. Earlier you mentioned that USAI is not a large organization, and you have to be laser-focused. When the global environment is changing rapidly and constantly, how does USAI identify trends rather than being reactionary?

Glenn Lau-Kee: I’m not sure we have the wherewithal to identify trends, but we do engage in topics in a timely way. Issues and thus opportunities present themselves, and we decide what issues are of particular interest and to whom. It’s a calculus of “is this an issue we should try to facilitate dialogue on?” We can’t necessarily contribute to the issue of the day, which may not seem ideal, but it allows us to scan the horizon. A lot of issues come from reactions to our programming, too. When we do a 101 event, maybe the U.S. government or somebody involved will tell us that they want to follow up something. Then we can detect a specific interest, but it’s natural. For example, the U.S.-China working group in Congress may have a particular interest, and so we will focus on that. It’s about finding the topic and gauging the interest, because you need people at the table.


Austin Myhre: Sure, that makes sense. You’re the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, and the board is designed to keep the organization focused on its mission. Where do you see that mission going in the coming years, especially as we move out of the pandemic, and as we've seen heightened tensions between the U.S. and China?

Glenn Lau-Kee: I’m speaking for myself here, but I think we'll have the same focus we've had. We may have different programming, but it's going to be very much the same focus. I will say that during difficult times our mission becomes more important, not less so, even though there's a whole bunch of difficult issues. As long as we're promoting productive dialogues, we are doing what we should be doing. It really is our sweet spot. There are very few organizations that do what we do, because we fiercely maintain our independence to do what we think is appropriate. That means we're not necessarily as attractive to a lot of the donors who may want advocacy toward a particular outcome for spending their resources on an organization. It’s a cost, but it’s a cost we are willing to bear. We have a number of sponsors that believe in letting us do what we do and think that there's a value in it, and we very much appreciate that. It keeps us smaller, but we think that makes us nimble, independent, and good at what we do.


Austin Myhre: Of course it is a cost, but I think as you mentioned, it is also an advantage. For our last question, I’d like to ask, do you have a favorite story or experience with USAI that reminds you of why this work is so important and why, maybe, international affairs students should find this work rewarding?

Glenn Lau-Kee: It's not a particular story, but it’s about an ambassador who I very much admired and valued and who was in very difficult positions throughout his career. When he left Washington and retired as ambassador, he paid us a special visit the day before he left. Knowing how busy he was, I asked, “why did you come by? You know you didn’t have to.” He said, very succinctly, “I came by just to tell you to continue what you’re doing, because it’s so important.” If there's anything that keeps me going, it's that sentiment. Like with any organization, it’s a percentage game: you can try to be as effective as possible, but you’re not going to hit every target. There’s room for improvement, and that keeps you on your toes. The main thing is understanding and appreciating the importance of USAI’s work, so when you hear someone like that ambassador reciprocate that appreciation, it keeps it in perspective.

This concludes the Loch Johnson Society’s interview with Mr. Lau-Kee and profile of the US-Asia Institute. We are deeply appreciative of him for spending his time with us.


For more information about the US-Asia Institute, please check out their website at usasiainstitute.org. This organization does phenomenal work in improving understanding and facilitating conversations between the people and governments of the United States and Asia. It also offers great programs, such as those mentioned in the interview, and internships for students passionate about U.S.-Indo-Pacific relations, which can be found on their website.


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