Commentary: US soft power declines as number of international students shrinks

Commentary: US soft power declines as number of international students shrinks

The decline in international students studying in the US may mean a decline in the US’s soft power, say two researchers at the University of Pittsburgh.

Silhouette of a university grad
A university student graduation. (Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder)

SAN FRANCISCO: When the number of international students at US colleges and universities declines, commentators often focus on the economic impact it will have on individual universities and communities.

As experts who specialise in global affairs and international education, we see a more serious threat: A diminished ability for the United States to shape and influence future leaders of the world.

Studies have shown that personal contact with the US shapes individuals’ dispositions toward the United States. Being part of a university community is a concrete and profound experience that exposes international students to the diversity of people, cultures and places in America.

When America’s policies and values are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, it enhances the nation’s “soft power” – that is, its ability to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion.


Currently about 20 per cent of all undergraduate and graduate students studying internationally study in the US.

There is a long tradition of some of these international students becoming world leaders. Examples include former United Nations Secretary Generals Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during the inaugural "Xin" Philanthropy Confere
Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during a conference in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China on July 9, 2016. (File photo: REUTERS/Stringer)

Annan, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the United Nations in 2001, described his experience as a student at Macalester College as transformational.

“The values and lessons I picked up here stayed with me throughout my life,” Annan said earlier this year as he visited his alma mater to dedicate an institute for global citizenship that bears his name.

The US is still in an enviable position to attract the best students from around the world and expose them to American culture and values. Its colleges dominate global rankings. Maintaining this position should be a top priority for American policymakers.

As political scientist Joseph Nye has argued regarding “soft power,” “the ability to shape the preferences of others” is a most valuable asset in world politics.


Soft power rests on a country’s ability to get others to “admire its values, emulate its example, and aspire to its level of prosperity and openness.”

Sympathetic feelings towards the US built from personal experiences are vital in shaping pro-US attitudes and behaviours. They also play a major role in the promotion of democratic values and individual rights around the world.

An example is former Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to lead a democratically elected government in an Islamic country. Bhutto was educated at Harvard. She once said that coming to a land where “there is freedom, where young students can criticise the president without being sent to prison,” fuelled her own belief in the democratic system.

Pakistan's former prime minister Benazir Bhutto waves to supporters on her way to Shahdad Kot
Pakistan's former prime minister Benazir Bhutto waves to supporters on her way to Shahdad Kot on November 26, 2007. (Photo: REUTERS/Athar Hussain/File Photo)

US-educated leaders are not limited to the political sphere.

Corporate heads educated in the US have also gained direct experience with the country’s culture of entrepreneurship, innovation and philanthropy.

For instance, Ratan Tata, CEO of one of India’s largest and most influential companies, was educated at Cornell.

Tata has directed substantial new investment to the US, and has expanded his company’s reach into Western markets by buying and restoring famous brands such as automakers Jaguar and Land Rover.

As chairman of Tata Trusts, he joined forces with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to try to solve public health issues. He emphasises a strategic approach to philanthropy based on the sustainability of the communities in which companies work.

The University of Pittsburgh, where we work, contributed to the education of many of the leaders of modern South Korea, one of the US’ most important strategic and economic partners in East Asia.


In 1967, young diplomat Kwon Byong-Hyon came to the University of Pittsburgh to study international affairs. Kwon later became the lead negotiator in efforts to establish diplomatic relations between his country and China.

He also played a fundamental role in the establishment of South Korea’s Overseas International Cooperation Agency. Both outcomes contributed to making the US safer by aligning geopolitical and development agendas with US national interests.

Lee Sang-joo, who earned a PhD in education at the University of Pittsburgh in 1971, is known as “the Father of Korean Baseball” due to his role in the creation of the Korea Baseball Organisation (KBO). When millions of Korean fans watch the KBO games on TV, they are connecting in a profound way with the US.

While the connection over a shared pastime may seem simple, its ability to build a shared cultural language is immeasurable.

The bottom line is that as the enrolment of international students decreases at US universities, the impact is not just financial.

The decline means fewer of the future leaders of the world will ever get the chance to experience the soul of America.

Nathan Urban is Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Strategic Initiatives, and Ariel C Armony is Vice Provost for Global Affair, both at the University of Pittsburgh. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation. Read the original commentary here.

Source: CNA/nr