On a Tuesday morning almost a year ago, an impressive young man came to see me from the foreign ministry of Thailand. This would be comparable to a foreign service officer in our State Department. He asked to join my staff as a fellow for a year so that he might become immersed in the American legislative process. My first question to him was: “Are you a spy?”
It turned out that Surat Suwannikkha, our unofficial “Thai Ambassador,” has an incredible background, though not in espionage. Raised in Bangkok, at age 15 he earned the top score in a national exam, garnering a scholarship that would prepare him for the Thai Foreign Service. Over the next decade, Surat received further education in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, in Hong Kong, Beijing, and London. Clearly, Thailand recognized his potential.
Surat joined my legislative team in December of last year. He was instantly embraced by all because of his kind and upbeat persona, his love of America, his infectious desire to learn our quirks, pastimes, and customs, and for his mastery of cross-cultural subtleties and nuance. I had Surat share with my staff the art of diplomatic protocol, which he neatly summarized as “the ability to put one’s self in another’s shoes.”
In our discussion this week in Washington, I had a deeper, more earnest question for Surat: “What, for a foreign visitor like yourself, is America’s brand?” Surat said that while the majority of Thais and Americans are oceans apart and practice different faiths––Surat is a Buddhist––we share a singular values proposition: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This, Surat posited, is why the relationship formed over two centuries between a then young republic and an established kingdom has stood the test of time and continues to flourish to this day.
Surat said America’s values proposition profoundly inspired the Thai people during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of the Cold War. After the Cold War ended (or paused), America’s proposition then stood alone. But how quickly the world has shifted. Competing propositions have quickly arisen. China’s state capitalism restricts the space for individual liberty in service to the collective. Russia’s national hegemony is sustained by an insistent need to be validated as a global power, even as her second-tier economic status belies Russia’s hyper-vigilant demand for outsized influence and respect.
Competing with these nation-state narratives is a transnational corporate one. This is less understood, as it hides beneath the veneer of economic nostrums about trade and development. Multinational corporations take on nation-state form and scream for protection when threats appear to their presumed and unfettered right to control all global commerce. Other barbaric ideologies compete for dominance as well. Surat affirmed that, more than ever, the world really does need America.
Surat’s gentlemanly manners, intellectual prowess, and generosity of spirit have inspired us all. Recently, after the U.S. women’s soccer team drummed the Thai women’s soccer team at the World Cup, Surat shared with us a note he sent to friends and colleagues: “In any competition, there will be a winner and a loser. That is a fact of life. But it is the graciousness that makes the difference. How a man plays the game shows something of his character, and how he loses shows all of it.”
Surat also noted the particularly strong hold the 4th of July holiday has on the Thai people. This is unsurprising since the word “Thai” literally translates as “to be free.”
Naturally, all of this mannerly good cheer takes great shape and form in Nebraska. This Thursday, “America’s Fourth of July City,” Seward, Nebraska, will host their annual parade. Surat will be there, “fit to be Thai.”