Education Drives America’s Strongest Soft Power Resource
The Worldernist

In an essay that was excerpted from his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, and published in Foreign Affairs Magazine, Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard Kennedy School first introduced the idea of “soft power.” This second aspect of power, in contrast to “hard power,” occurs “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants.” In other words, soft power is one nation’s ability to shape the goals and interests of others. This ability derives not from military might or coercion but from the attractiveness of ideals and values. Nye explains this best: “The ability to affect what other countries want tends to be associated with intangible power resources such as culture, ideology and institutions.”

While Captain Mahan, Allen Dulles and President Ronald Reagan defined the U.S. military, Earnest Hemingway, Bob Dylan and Clint Eastwood contributed to American “intangible power resources.” Hemingway, Dylan and Eastwood serve — of course — as references to the American culture from which the United States derives its soft power. The more American books, TV shows, movies and music dominate global leisure time, the more popular American culture becomes.

But, the greatest soft power resource of them all is at the higher education level, particularly the education of international students. When an international student spends time immersed in American culture — where free speech is practiced, democratic elections are held and gay marriage is legal — his or her viewpoints will alter to an extent, if not entirely. As the international student returns to his or her native country and takes over vital positions in the public or private sector, the individual will eventually affect his or her country’s trajectory and, in turn, U.S. foreign policy.

According to the Open Doors Report, a project developed and carried out by the Institute of International Education in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and U.S. Census Bureau, there were 886,052 international students in U.S. higher education institutions in the 2013-2014 academic year, an 8.1 percent rise from the previous year. This was a 62 percent increase from 547,867 students in the 2000-2001 academic year.

Five countries — China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Canada — account for about 60 percent of the international students enrolled in U.S. institutions. Surprisingly enough, among the top twenty-five places of origin, nine countries (China, India, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Iran, Colombia, Venezuela and Russia) have different government systems, anti-American leaders, conflicting foreign affairs standpoints and histories of armed conflict with the United States.

In addition, this is the third year in which undergraduates outnumber graduates, with 370,724 and 329,854 students respectively. This is important because as undergraduates, students will experience the liberal arts culture of U.S. institutions. Unlike graduate students, who are relatively older and tend to return to school for particular professional training, undergraduates tend to be in their late teens, have a less ideologically developed mind and are here for a holistic college experience. Evidently, these college years will have a lasting impact on the minds of these young people.

Moreover, it costs U.S. taxpayers almost no money to educate international students. Among the top U.S. institutions hosting international students, 14 are state or public universities, four have limited financial aid and grants to international students and only two are more likely to grant aid (Columbia and Harvard). International students are already excluded from federal grants and other public scholarships, and only six schools review international students’ applications without looking at financial aid. Therefore, the primary funding for international students’ U.S. education comes from personal and family funding, foreign governments or universities, foreign private sponsors and international organizations — this accounts for 73.5 percent of the total cost.

In addition, international students help to stimulate the U.S. economy. They have to cover living expenses ranging from transportation and insurance fees to the costs of leisure activities. As a result, the net contribution to the U.S. economy by foreign students is estimated at 27 billion dollars.

The current plethora of pro-U.S. foreign leaders is the result of the education of international students that took place decades ago. Essam Sharaf received a Ph.D. in civil engineering from Purdue University and was appointed Egypt’s interim prime minister after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Nahas Angula graduated from Columbia with a master’s degree in education and was appointed Namibia’s prime minister in 2005. He defended the decision to sign the multibillion-dollar Millennium Challenge Account Development agreement with the United States. A Harvard graduate and current president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf regards the United States as the greatest ally of the Liberian democratization and reconstruction process. Panama’s president, Ricardo Martinelli, graduated from the University of Arkansas and achieved a free trade agreement with the United States after much advocacy, building a special trade relationship with the state of Arkansas.

A welcoming attitude toward international students facilitates U.S. soft power. The influence that the United States is exerting on other nations around the world attests to the underlying and important value of the education of international students in the United States.

Duy Mai is a freshman in School of Foreign Service. The Worldernist appears every other Thursday on 

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>