Education as Soft Power and Beyond

Education is a good thing. This is a generalisation, but one of the very few with which most people would agree. Now, what education delivered to whom, where and how are issues which have led to wars, both verbal and physical, both of epic scale. While, historically, contemplating these questions has been considered a male-brain friendly exercise, equally generally, education is recognised as a domain appropriate for female engagement, albeit more often at the operational level. This ‘imbalance of power’ has somewhat shifted in women’s favour recently, especially in the countries which collectively refer to themselves as ‘the West’. Although the trajectory is less clear in other regions, visiting schools, cutting the ribbon at opening ceremonies and attending education foundations’ meetings have come to be viewed as an acceptable activity for important ladies in most parts of the world. While there are many issues for men to argue about, it all comes down to the fact that, ultimately, education is a good thing, it is a realm which requires ‘soft’ skills and is thus uncontroversial enough to accommodate female disposition. 

My encounters with political theory have been determined mainly by necessity rather than by choice. Yet my engagement with international education has been a very conscious decision, possibly because it suits my disposition. What is interesting about education is that while it may be considered ‘soft’, it is also a power. The conceptualisation of education as a soft power mechanism is a phenomenon which was gifted to the world by Joseph Nye in the 1980s. It is premised on the idea that countries, instead of coercing each other to take certain action, are able to exercise influence through exporting and popularising their culture with education being one of the main vehicles for such dissemination. In a way, it is a conscious strategy to make others want what you want facilitated through a peaceful act of educational engagement. While invoking neoliberal thinking inspired by positivist philosophy may look like an attempt to bring back the dead, it is a relatively novel approach to advancing one’s capabilities, demonstrated by the fact that most countries continue to rely on more traditional arsenals.

Education may not necessarily be everyone’s weapon of choice, but major players (yes, the ‘black boxes’) such as the United States (US) and UK have been striving to be at the forefront of this development for quite some time. Indeed, the prestige associated with holding a degree from an institution based in either country does not warrant a lengthy explanation, while Harrow, Eton, Sandhurst, the Ivy League, and Oxbridge seem to have become part of the DNA of many Middle Eastern royals and other figures of prominence. Despite occasional awkwardness (read ‘a dead journalist’ or ‘an imprisoned researcher’), the MENA in general and Saudi Arabia in particular represent some of the key markets when it comes to international student recruitment. And when I say ‘markets’, I mean it: the time of unexplored, exotic and sensual lands is over (sort of); today we live in a world where the attractiveness of UK education is pitched by the Department for International Trade and discussed alongside overcoming international trade barriers.

I am going to leave the economic benefits of this phenomenon to the reader’s imagination. The proponents of such engagement, however, go much further. Ultimately, one can hope that through educational exchange the leaders of tomorrow, regardless of the areas in which they will be leading, will develop a more nuanced and sympathetic understanding of, if not fondness for, each other’s culture and values, which in turn may facilitate more cooperation and negotiation in the international arena. This does not take away the fact that Western powers will also hope to continue having the upper hand in these negotiations, but at least the starting point and the intended destination have a chance to be mutually intelligible. It is possible to even go so far as to imagine that, with time, we will be able to ‘share’ not just high quality education but also the norms of democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights, and greater equality among citizens; it may even take place outside Western superiority discourse.  

While we are trying to find our way to this glorious future, there are some interesting developments to consider. Historically, Middle Eastern monarchies have enjoyed close ties with the UK and the US although one can argue that the latter relationship is much more deeply rooted in the local elites’ cost-benefit calculations than in any other, more benign form of affiliation. Given the prominence of the English language, it is thus not surprising that Western higher education is an appealing option to those who can afford it. The case of the ex-president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, is more intriguing. Morsi went to the US on a scholarship to study at the University of Southern California where he obtained a PhD; he later came back to Egypt to become actively involved in national politics. While closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), an organisation considered terrorist in some countries, Morsi chose to follow an overall peaceful and legal route to power, embracing political campaigning and winning the presidential election of 2012. While this was not necessarily a radical ‘rethink’ on the MB’s part of how it did politics, it was nonetheless a milestone which demonstrated how far the MB had moved away from Milestones. Equally, while this is not to suggest that had Morsi not gone to Southern California, he would have embarked on a jihad instead, his presidency could have served as an opportunity for Western powers to develop a more enlightened understanding of the various strands of political Islam and how to work with some of them, and for Morsi’s government – to welcome and to encourage such endeavours. 

The reader may have noticed a few dead ends – and this is where it gets complicated. Morsi, paradoxically, exemplifies how soft power works and how it does not. While initially demonstrating commitment to what some would call a moderate political direction, the president and his ideological allies ended up adopting a relatively dogmatic, inflexible approach to governing the country, side-lining and silencing more centrist voices within their own ranks, and were out of power within a year. Saudi Arabia might have signed multiple memoranda of understanding with European universities to make it easier for its students to secure places at these institutions, but such agreements often cover very specific academic disciplines such as medicine and nursing, the professional fields which can offer a comfortable life both to the students upon their return and to the ruling regime as long as the former accept co-optation by the latter. Limiting the conceptualisation of education as soft power by default delegates its potential for the positive change which goes beyond producing competent Saudi doctors to a place of secondary importance, from where it may or may not happen. This is further complicated by the fact that many overseas students, particularly those who come from the MENA, routinely have more in common with other members of the so-called ‘international upper class’ than with their own co-nationals. This, of course, may still produce very cooperative elites willing to bow to pressures from their new foreign friends, but it may produce nothing else; or it may give us another Milestones. 

Now, why should anyone care? Ultimately, education as a soft power tool does what it is meant to do: it serves as a complementary power leverage which sometimes works, and it can lead to positive change, albeit possibly not as profound as a wave of global democratisation. The answer is subjective and normative: because it can be so much more. If we try to rethink education as a tool geared towards absolute empowerment rather than one aimed at maximising power, we are likely to discover at least two things: that education goes far beyond its traditional modes such as university study and that it can truly transform people’s lives. One can think of the transformative power of education as building upon the impact knowledge exposure and exchange have at the recipient level. It is something we often do not boast about: it is funding female students from a Moroccan village to enrol on an entrepreneurship course to help them open a local embroidery business; it is offering a volunteering position to a young person from Amman to work at a Catholic educational centre in Eastern Europe; it is awarding a research grant to a young man from a refugee family despite grammatical errors in his personal statement – he is much more likely to suffer from undiagnosed dyslexia than many of his peers. It is very often giving opportunities to those who will not become Prime Ministers and Nobel Prize laureates. Yet the impact such an approach is likely to have at the individual, grassroots level is phenomenal, and in many cases it goes on to affect the community, sometimes by just demonstrating that there is an alternative to what we call ‘reality’. Helping a married woman in Saudi Arabia to get basic administrative skills, to obtain a part-time position as a hospital receptionist and to persuade her husband that her employment is appropriate and will benefit their family may not be Al-Jazeera worthy news, but just think about where this can take us. And even if it does not take us anywhere, for this family, it still goes beyond the imaginable. 

Don’t get me wrong: I am a big fan of formal international education. I am equally aware of the crucial role played by senior government officials, established entrepreneurs and royal families in the MENA when it comes to financing the initiatives which aim to transform individual lives – Western education is a privilege, just like being in a position to help a stranger. And there is not that much difference between Morsi and a dyslexic young man going to the US on a scholarship. It is the way we think about it. Do we want to celebrate our education because we can use it as a vehicle to transmit to the world the assumed superiority of our values and norms, whatever these are? Or because we are brave enough to empower each other despite our differences and the fact that sometimes there will be nothing given back for this empowerment?

My family often explain (and explain away) my views as an outcome of idealistic youthfulness – I do not argue, I just wish my backache and inadequate mortgage eligibility were more receptive to this school of thought. Ultimately, this is not a prescriptive piece – this is just a reflection on the fact that the way we think has consequences, and many of us have recently had a lot of time to think. The UK Government’s education strategy in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco can have a positive impact in multiple ways. Yes, I acknowledge that ‘positive’ is a very subjective notion, and yet I stand by my conviction: ultimately, education is a good thing. I just hope that those who deliver presentations and sign memoranda occasionally think about farmers in Morocco; house wives in Saudi Arabia; young, often unemployed people in Jordan. And if the price of keeping this hope alive is backache and no real prospects of home ownership – well, so be it. 

[1] J. Nye, ‘Soft Power and Higher Education,’ Forum for the Future of Higher Education, http://forum.mit.edu/articles/soft-power-and-higher-education/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] UK Department for Education and Department for International Trade, ‘International Education Strategy: 2021 update: Supporting recovery, driving growth,’ February 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/international-education-strategy-2021-update/international-education-strategy-2021-update-supporting-recovery-driving-growth

[4]Ibid.

[5] A. Amirbek and K. Ydyrys, ‘Education and Soft Power: Analysis as an Instrument of Foreign Policy,’ Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences, Vol. 143, 2014, pp. 514-516.

[6] This is in reference to radical Islamist writer Sayyid Qutb and his work Milestones which is often considered a source of inspiration and encouragement for Islamist movements to use violence. 

[7] ‘Saudi Education Ministry Signs MoUs with British, Swedish Universities for Medical Training,’ Arab News, 13 April 2019, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1482056/saudi-arabia

[8] Fun facts: Sayyid Qutb (see reference VI) studied in the U.S. while Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda (possibly deceased), is a surgeon by training. 

[9] All examples used in this paragraph are real life scenarios encountered by the author.

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