Sway: WikiLeaks, universities and 'soft power'

The diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks articulate the importance of the academy in the ‘great game’ of international politics. David Matthews investigates

February 2, 2012

Source: Paul Bateman

Buried in the footnotes of Lord Woolf’s report into the London School of Economics’ links with Mu’ammer Gaddafi’s Libyan regime is a detail that shows the academy behaving with integrity. In spring 2002, the University of Oxford was pressured by a “senior civil servant” in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to admit Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the colonel’s son, as a PhD student because “Libya was opening up to the West again”. But Oxford resisted the pressure because, it said, Saif Gaddafi was simply not up to scratch academically.

Of course, he (and his father’s regime) did gain access to another leading UK university, the LSE, with the Woolf report later identifying in the decision a combination of complacency and idealism on the institution’s part. Enlisting the dictator’s son had serious consequences for the school after the supposedly reform-minded Saif enthusiastically joined in with his father’s bloody repression of Libya’s Arab Spring.

The saga shows that far from universities being remote ivory towers, governments can seek to use them for their own ends as major players in the world of “soft power” - the ability of states to get what they want through the attractiveness of their culture, political ideals and policies rather than coercion, conflict or cash.

Last autumn, 251,287 American diplomatic cables running from 1966 to February 2010 were released on to the World Wide Web via WikiLeaks. The release of the unredacted cables was criticised by those who believed the cables should be vetted and names of informers protected - an approach that Times Higher Education has taken in this feature. What the cables show about higher education is that the US sees universities as an important element in the exercise of global power. But US diplomats are also concerned that rival states and groups are seeking to use the academy to challenge US dominance.

“Universities are the great overlooked transnational actors in international relations,” says Rasmus Bertelsen, a postdoctoral researcher at Aalborg University in Denmark who has studied universities’ soft power role. “If we look at ideas, talent and money, it’s very clear that universities can be very important bridges between societies.”

One of the most important ways that universities, particularly Western ones, can influence the worldviews of other countries is by educating their future elites. For example, Bertelsen notes, “Oxford attracts people from all over the world and sends people all over the world.” A variety of foreign leaders past and present have thrived there, including India’s Manmohan Singh, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto and former US president Bill Clinton.

In an era in which the ranks of students attending universities outside their home nations are rising sharply, opportunities to exercise that sort of influence are growing, too. The West, and particularly the US, dominates the market, which in 2009 numbered 3.7 million tertiary education students, according to Education at a Glance 2011, a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. More than half of those students are from Asia.

The majority head to the West: 18 per cent of international students study in the US, followed by the UK (9.9 per cent), Australia (7 per cent), Germany (7 per cent), France (6.8 per cent) and Canada (5.2 per cent). The US’ major economic and political rivals - Russia (3.7 per cent) and China (1.7 per cent) - lag far behind on this measure of soft power.

As a result, “most of China’s leaders have a son or daughter educated in the States who can portray a realistic view of the US that is often at odds with the caricatures in official Chinese propaganda”, Joseph Nye, university distinguished service professor at Harvard University, wrote in 2004. Nye coined the term “soft power” in 1990 and explored its relationship with the academy in a subsequent article, “Soft power and higher education”. In it he described how the US higher education sector can “advance American foreign policy by cultivating a better understanding of power”.

The cables revealed via WikiLeaks indicate that the US sees foreign graduates of American universities as potential allies. In a confidential cable to the US Embassy in Azerbaijan asking for information about the elites within the country’s autocratic government, the US asks whether “within the Azerbaijani group AAA (an association of alumni from American universities), are any members reform-minded and particularly effective?”

The diplomatic communication, sent in February 2010, also asks if there are “any signs that members have been planted by the (Azerbaijani) government to monitor the group’s activities”.

In a cable sent in the same month, a Libyan official informed the Americans that “in Libya at least 4,000 people have graduated from US universities, and many of them are in influential positions. This is a big plus for bilateral relations.”

Bertelsen argues that this kind of soft power is one reason why Western countries should not reduce their foreign student numbers. While rich states such as Qatar have used their money to entice Western universities to set up branches on their home soil, “it is not the same experience as being in Washington or London. You’re not exposed to the society.”

Western states are not the only ones using university places as a way to strengthen alliances with (and influence in) other countries, and the WikiLeaks cables give plenty of examples of this. Along with military cars, trucks and helicopters, India provides 650 scholarship places to students from Afghanistan annually as part of its development partnership with the country, according to a 2010 cable sent by US officials in New Delhi titled, “What is India doing in Afghanistan?”

Meanwhile, the tiny African state of Djibouti voiced concerns to US officials in the same year about an extreme form of politically motivated scholarship. Businessmen from the Houthi Group, a Shia Muslim rebel organisation operating in neighbouring Yemen, “financed tuition-free universities that fostered extremists”, it claimed, while al-Qaeda “financed non-Yemeni students (including French nationals and other Europeans) to study at universities” there.

One country making significant efforts to boost its soft power by trying to attract more overseas students is China, according to Rui Yang, associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong.

“China is quickly becoming one of the largest hosts of international students, and is offering more and more scholarships to attract them,” he says.

However, according to Education at a Glance 2011, the percentage of international students studying at Chinese universities declined slightly between 2000 and 2009, and the country still has a smaller share of the overseas-student cohort than Italy.

“As for the real effect of soft power projection through universities, China is not doing a very good job - at least, not good enough in the eyes of the Chinese government,” Rui says.

With international students seen as such a great asset to a country’s soft power ambitions, it is perhaps no wonder that some governments want to control who studies abroad and what. In a cable sent in February 2010, US officials reported that Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Education was demanding that it alone select the students allowed to travel to American universities, restricting their choice of study to the hard sciences rather than “such controversial topics as ‘law, history, and others’…best left covered by Turkmen experts”.

A US official also wrote that “based on the experience with other international exchange programs and with what Turkmen officials have told us”, those students selected would be “well-connected and/or have paid a lot of money” in bribes, would be “woefully unqualified” to pass an English as a foreign language qualification, and would be exclusively “ethnic Turkmen from ‘good families’?”, not students from minority groups. A senior foreign affairs official from the Turkmenistan government told the Americans that one US university’s exchange programme “had been tainted by widespread corruption by the Turkmen educational officials involved”.

The cables also show US diplomats expressing concerns about rival powers gaining influence in other countries’ academies. Describing the use of education to achieve Chinese soft power goals in Thailand, a 2010 cable reported that 76 Chinese educators were working in higher education in the country. At Rajabhat Mahasarakham University in East Thailand, courses on US history and US foreign policy “were both taught by Chinese scholars with salary support from the Chinese government”, the cable noted.

Another cable claimed that “openly political” attempts had been made by the Iranian media to influence Iraqi students at Dhi Qar University in Nasiriyah at a debate held prior to the Iraqi elections in January 2010. The Tehran-based Al-Kawthar satellite television channel posed questions to students concerning the “occupation’s imposed candidates” and made “thinly veiled references to Saudi meddling in Iraqi affairs”, the US Embassy in Baghdad reported.

Paul Bateman feature illustration

But academics at foreign universities are also frequently willing to offer covert help to US officials by providing briefings and insight into domestic politics and international relations, the WikiLeaks revelations suggest. Scholars from countries including Malawi, Thailand, Nigeria, Georgia, South Korea, Iran, Bangladesh and China are all cited as sources in the cables - many of which state that the academics’ identities should be protected.

After the sources were exposed by WikiLeaks, Chinese nationalist bloggers reportedly called for the execution of scholars who had spoken to US diplomats. But there have been few concrete examples of the sources being arrested, harassed - or worse.

Building soft power can also involve public efforts by governments to create high-profile institutions, as the cables make clear. Notable examples include the 320 or so Confucius Institutes that have been opened in universities across the world since 2004, with the stated aim of spreading Chinese culture and language.

The Chinese government is thought to contribute about $100,000 (£65,000) annually to each institute, and they are seen in some quarters as a means by which the Chinese government can seek to stifle debate and criticism. Last November, Stanford University reportedly turned down the offer of a $4 million donation from China in return for a Confucius Institute and a professorship - as long as the scholar holding the chair agreed to steer clear of tricky issues such as Tibet.

The cables make clear that the institutes are very often part of broader negotiations and relations between the Chinese government and other countries, rather than facilities set up at the request of the host universities. A 2006 diplomatic cable reported that the German government agreed to Confucius Institutes in Hamburg and Hanover during a visit by the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao when commercial deals were also struck.

But an extensive discussion, detailed in a 2006 cable with a senior official involved with the institutes, paints a picture of an operation much less sinister and far more shambolic than many have imagined.

The official said that the goal was for the institutes to “hopefully increase the number of people who support (or at least do not dislike) China” by helping foreigners to understand the country. However, the official “denied any ‘political element’?” and complained that the organisation was seriously underfunded and had to bother the Ministry of Finance “every day” for money.

Staff from the US embassy in Beijing were also told that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs “‘doesn’t know a thing’ about public diplomacy and education”. The official added that the institutes’ methods of teaching Chinese to foreigners were too “stubborn” and “traditional”, with the Chinese government generally disorganised when it came to promoting its language and culture.

A Chinese journalist also told the US in the same cable that officials had written internal reports criticising Confucius Institutes for being “dilapidated and unappealing”, and argued that the government had “no concerted plan” to bolster China’s soft power.

The practice of setting up institutions abroad to enhance soft power is hardly confined to China.

In 2010, a cable described Russian efforts in Azerbaijan to preserve the “privileged position of Russian language and culture…as an indirect means of influencing public opinion and governmental outcomes in Moscow’s favor”. Key among the initiatives pushed by the visiting head of the Russian Presidential Administration, Sergey Naryshkin, was opening a satellite campus of Lomonosov Moscow State University in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital.

Meanwhile, in 2009, according to a cable of that year, the Egyptian government funded the construction of a university in Juba, now the capital of the newly formed state of South Sudan, as part of a “benefit of unity” with North Sudan. The Egyptians then believed that “if South Sudan chooses to secede…it would result in a war that would flood Egypt with refugees” and could create a “non-viable state” that would threaten its access to the Nile, US officials wrote. The new university was effectively being used as a bribe to prevent Sudan splitting apart. It was unsuccessful.

There is, of course, nothing new in great powers establishing universities abroad as a way to exert influence overseas. More than a century before the Confucius Institutes, American missionaries founded overseas outposts that spread to Lebanon, Egypt, China and Japan to convert foreigners to Christianity.

Bertelsen’s research on these US institutions has found that while Chinese students valued the education offered, not only did they reject the Americans’ proselytising mission and foreign policy towards China, many would also go on to get involved with nationalist politics.

So “to be accepted by the Chinese host society…they turned toward Chinese culture to reassert Chinese identity, to appear as part of nationalistic and cultural education, and to adapt to Chinese society and what it emphasised”, Bertelsen writes in a paper titled “The soft power of American missionary universities in China and of their legacies”. As a result, US universities may have become agents of “reverse soft power” and served as advocates of their “host” societies to Americans, he argues.

Nye believes that if China’s Confucius Institutes just teach “basic Chinese culture”, they will be effective. But if it is widely believed that Beijing controls thought, word and deed at the institutions, they would undercut rather than create soft power. If the Chinese try to use the institutes “for propaganda, they will fail to generate [it]”, he says.

Some regimes are openly hostile towards Western influences in their universities. In a speech in August 2009, the Iranian government said that the concept of a Western liberal-arts university was antithetical to the Islamic republic. Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, “condemned the teaching of Western social sciences and humanities” and saw “toxic Western influences as the root cause of student discontent”, according to a 2010 cable from US diplomats stationed in the country. Hundreds of students were arrested or expelled and several professors fired in the wake of Khamenei’s announcement, the cable reported. Although it downplayed any idea of a sweeping “second cultural revolution” in Iran’s universities, it posited the move against Western humanities as part of Iran’s defence “in the perceived ‘soft war’ with America”.

But governments seeking to control, if not stifle, debate face a difficulty: many are planning to expand their higher education sectors at the same time out of economic necessity.

In the case of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, part of the kingdom’s plan is to move away from its dependence on petroleum and towards a knowledge economy. The state’s official line on academic freedom is that “there is no harm in taking science and technology from others and moulding them to suit our moderate Islamic pattern”, as King Abdullah said in a speech in November 2009.

Bertelsen observes: “The hope of every autocratic regime is that you can have science and technology [in universities] without academic freedom.”

It is a balancing act and one that will be played out on a vast scale in China, he adds.

The difficulty for the Chinese “is that the Communist Party wants to hang on to power and it wants to create a knowledge-based economy. The question is whether they can have both.”

With China’s global influence growing ever greater, the outcome will have important consequences for the academy in the 21st century.

Paul Bateman feature illustration

Unguarded thoughts

Extracts from diplomatic cables give a snapshot of higher education systems around the world and how the US views the academy abroad

On unusual election tactics in the Bahamas (February 2010):

“The most recent newcomer on the political scene is the United Christian Love Revolution Movement led by Godfrey Pinder. Pinder told the press he would promote conservative politics for the country based on fundamental Christian principles. He said it was his aim to create ‘love universities’ in The Bahamas which would teach law and theology.”

On the UK, in a cable titled ‘UK Muslim Demographics’ (January 2009):

“According to a poll of 600 Muslim and 800 non-Muslim students at thirty universities throughout the UK conducted by the Centre for Social Cohesion…32 percent of Muslims on UK campuses believe killing in the name of religion is justified, 54 percent wanted a Muslim Party to represent their world view in Parliament, and 40 percent want Muslims in the UK to be under Sharia …”

On under-resourcing in Zambian higher education (January 2010):

“Chronic absences. Poor preparation. Classroom inebriation. And that’s just the professors. While gains have been made in elementary and secondary education, insufficient capacity, resources, facilities and training have crippled Zambia’s ability to educate its citizenry at the tertiary level. Only two percent of Zambians possess a bachelor’s degree or higher…Reports of alcoholism among faculty recently led administrators to admonish them via written notice and decree that alcohol will no longer be served in campus cafes before 4pm.”

On the state of higher education in Zimbabwe (October 2008):

“At present, a senior lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe earns the equivalent of USD 5 per month…Students who completed their degree programs in May have yet to receive final grades, transcripts or diplomas. Those starting university, as well as continuing students, have registered only to be told that ‘lectures have been indefinitely postponed until a further date to be advised’…? Zimbabwe is in danger of losing an entire generation’s education, setting back its recovery for decades…”

On bold building plans in Saudi Arabia (February 2010):

“Megaprojects, with complex and demanding timelines, could stretch Saudi Aramco’s (Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company) ability to effectively carry out their tasks. Recently, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology campus was subject to heavy storms and flooding. The effects of the rains and subsequent flooding highlighted some of the university’s infrastructural defects. Saudi Aramco, under stringent timelines, built the university (in a remarkable thirty-three months).”

On US fears about Iran (March 2009):

“Individuals from many Iranian universities, as well as a variety of commercial organizations, also routinely attempt to solicit information from cleared defense contractors and US firms via socially engineered e-mail messages in order to acquire information related to restricted US operations and research. This information could then be used to develop similar programs for the GoI (government of Iran), shared with third-party entities (eg, Islamic extremist groups), or exploited through additional Iranian computer network operations activities …”

On forced labour in Tajikistan (June 2009):

“Local officials ignored previous ‘freedom to farm’ decrees and the President’s decree banning forcing [sic] university students to pick cotton. Students who refuse have been expelled from university. Though this year a few officials were reprimanded for using forced student labor, it remains to be seen whether the government has the will to make significant changes.”

On student groups in Bangladesh (February 2010):

“A recent surge in student violence, and the ensuing crackdown on Islamic student groups, has raised concern that Bangladesh may witness a return to the violent political confrontations that preceded the January 2007 State of Emergency. The most recent spate of student violence only partly involved political manoeuvrings between rival political parties. Much of the violence stems from the corrupt practices that various student wings developed over the last three decades to collect money and increase their power and influence…If there is a silver lining to the recent violence, it can be found in increasing calls from civil society to depoliticize campuses and place restrictions on student political groups …”

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