The Global Response to American Power: Can Higher Education Help?

Stephen Walt

Take Aways

  • Recent surveys report that China now has a higher “favorability rating” than the United States, even for citizens of countries that are long-standing U.S. allies, such as Britain and Germany.
  • A 2005 BBC survey found that a majority of citizens had “positive” views of the influence of the United States in only five of 18 major countries surveyed.
  • Scholars in America’s colleges and universities have a responsibility to speak truth to power, and to teach students and citizens about America’s past behavior and its current activities.
  • Over half a million foreigners study at U.S. colleges and universities each year, a total that comprises roughly 30 percent of the entire global population of foreign students.
  • Former secretary of state Colin Powell said in 2001 that he could “think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here.”

It has become something of a cliché to refer to the United States as the most powerful country since Rome. Despite a number of setbacks in recent years—most notably in Iraq—the United States still wields unprecedented global influence. Not surprisingly, therefore, Americans continue to debate how to use the remarkable power at their disposal. Stephen Walt, academic dean at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, looks at American power from the point of view of foreign leaders, for whom the question is, “What can I do about American power?” No world leader can ignore this question—and Americans should care about it as well. Even close U.S. allies seek ways to tame American power. To fashion an effective foreign policy, we first need to understand how others see U.S. primacy, and then consider how they are dealing with it. As scholars and academic administrators, we should also consider the role higher education can play in this environment.

A Gap in Perceptions

Historically, Americans have tended to see primacy as good for the country and good for the world as well. Former president Bill Clinton describes the United States as “a beacon of hope to peoples around the world,” and Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington sees U.S. primacy as “central to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order.” President George W. Bush has said that he was surprised to learn there was “vitriolic hatred” of America in other countries, “because I know how good we are.” Ordinary Americans also see their country as a positive force in world affairs. The 2001 World Values Survey reports that 70 percent of U.S. citizens are “very proud” to be American, and the 2002 Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 79 percent of Americans believe it is good that “American ideas and customs are spreading around the world.”

Unfortunately, this rosy view of U.S. primacy is not shared overseas. For example, more than 70 percent of Americans believe that U.S. foreign policy takes the interests of other states into account either “a great deal” or “a fair amount,” but in other countries overwhelming majorities say that U.S. foreign policy considers the interests of others “not much” or “not at all.” No matter where one looks, in fact, one sees rising concerns about U.S. primacy. On the eve of war with Iraq, novelist John le Carré wrote that “the United States has gone mad.” A 2005 BBC survey found that a majority of citizens had “positive” views of the influence of the United States in only five countries—the Philippines, India, Poland, South Africa, and South Korea—while majorities held negative views in Argentina, Germany, Russia, Canada, Mexico, France, Australia, Indonesia, Brazil, Chile, and Great Britain. Negative percentages also exceeded the positive scores in Lebanon, China, and Japan. Indeed, more recent surveys report that China now has a higher “favorability rating” than the United States, even for citizens of countries that are longstanding U.S. allies, such as Britain and Germany.

The U.S. image is especially bleak in the Arab world. When asked to identify their “first thought” when America is mentioned, the most frequent response of those surveyed in Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates was “unfair foreign policy.” And Osama bin Laden’s popularity has consistently outpaced President Bush’s by over 40 percentage points in Pakistan, Morocco, and Jordan.

What is going on here? If U.S. primacy is a force for good—as U.S. leaders proclaim and as Americans overwhelmingly believe—then why do even close U.S. allies view U.S. primacy with certain misgivings, and why are many states looking for ways to tame American power? Even if other countries were convinced that the United States is consistently virtuous, they would still have reason to worry about how America might use the vast power at its disposal. A former prime minister of Canada, the late Pierre Trudeau, captured this problem perfectly: living next to the United States, he remarked, is “like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how well behaved or well-intentioned the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Attributing America’s current unpopularity solely to its power or its values cannot explain the sharp decline in world opinion that has occurred since 2000. The widely held belief that opposition to American primacy is focused on “what we are” rather than “what we do” ignores what our opponents say. Osama bin Laden’s entire political career has been based on opposition to the specific policies of particular states, beginning with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He did not attack the United States to protest our “freedom,” he attacked to “punish” us for what he sees as unjust U.S. policies in the Middle East (e.g., our military presence in the Gulf, our support for Israel, and our close ties with Saudi Arabia).

Further, anti-Americanism is reinforced by the perception that the United States employs a double standard when judging others’ conduct and considers itself immune to the strictures it expects others to observe. The United States strongly opposes nuclear proliferation, for example, while maintaining thousands of warheads in its own nuclear arsenal. For this reason, Muhammed el-Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, likens the United States to someone “with a cigarette dangling from their mouths, loudly telling everyone else not to smoke.” Similarly, Americans say they are deeply committed to human rights and the rule of law and are quick to condemn other countries for violating these principles. But when U.S. soldiers committed serious human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (and in the campaign in Afghanistan), President Bush did not offer an apology and did not ask any top-level officials to resign. To make matters worse, the administration initially opposed Republican senator John McCain’s efforts to bar U.S. personnel from engaging in torture. Whatever one thinks of these policies, they make the United States appear deeply hypocritical in the eyes of others.

Like President Bush, who said that the abuses at Abu Ghraib did not reflect “the America I know,” Americans may dismiss these accusations of human rights violations as false, misleading, or exaggerated. But the issue is not what we think of our nation’s conduct; the issue is how that conduct appears to others. Some of these accusations may be unfounded, but many are not, and they have drained the reservoir of goodwill that can make U.S. primacy palatable to others.

Repairing America’s Global Image: The Role of Higher Education

Reversing the slide in America’s global image is primarily a task for those charged with handling U.S. foreign relations, because it is America’s actions on the world stage that will ultimately shape how others see us. Yet there is a role for higher education in accomplishing this broad task, and America’s universities can contribute in several ways.

Higher education may be the one arena in which genuine foreign policy debate is still possible in the United States; such debate certainly isn’t widespread inside the Beltway, in the mainstream media, or even in Congress.

First, and most obviously, scholars in America’s colleges and universities have a responsibility to speak truth to power, and to teach our students and citizens about America’s past behavior and its current activities. This responsibility does not mean that scholars must be relentlessly critical, and it certainly does not mean trying to impose a single orthodoxy on the academic community. Instead, we ought to encourage a robust and open debate on important international issues and foster a diverse array of opinions. Higher education may be the one arena in which genuine foreign policy debate is still possible in the United States; such debate certainly isn’t widespread inside the Beltway, in the mainstream media, or even in Congress. In the months before the invasion of Iraq, for example, the debate in academia was far broader and more serious than the debate inside Washington, where politicians and pundits rarely questioned the administration’s case for war. Most importantly, the academic debate before the war was not one-sided: international relations scholars were in fact deeply divided about the merits of preventive war in Iraq. Far more illuminating and thoughtful exchanges were possible within the academy than one could observe within the government or among the pundits.

Among other things, fostering open debate means that academic administrators have a responsibility to defend scholars and teachers who take unpopular positions, and to resist pressure to conform to political correctness of the right or left, or to simple flag-waving patriotism. It is easy to invoke “academic freedom” as a sacred principle, but defending that principle sometimes takes real courage, especially when we do not agree with the particular views we are called upon to defend. Without the courage to defend unpopular views, however, academia cannot play its vital watchdog role.

Second, we also have a responsibility to educate our students—both those from the United States and those from overseas. America’s system of higher education remains a key asset in our portfolio of power; according to a ranking published in 2005 in the Economist, 17 of the top 20 universities in the world are located in the United States. These institutions are a powerful magnet for talented and ambitious students from overseas, many of whom will eventually rise to positions of prominence in their home societies. Over half a million foreigners study at U.S. colleges and universities each year, a total that comprises roughly 30 percent of the entire global population of foreign students. By way of comparison, the countries that host the next highest proportion of all students studying abroad, Great Britain and Germany, have only 12 percent apiece. As Joseph Joffe, editor of Die Zeit, noted a few years ago, “If there is a global civilization, it is American. Wealthy Romans used to send their children to Greek universities. Today’s Greeks—that is, the Europeans—send their kids to Roman—that is, American—universities.” Joffe himself is an apt illustration: he received his B.A. from Swarthmore and later earned a Ph.D. from Harvard. He has been an influential pro-American intellectual throughout his accomplished career.

The history of my own employer, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, offers a nice illustration: When the Kennedy School was founded in the late 1970s, the vast majority of its students were American and its curriculum was designed to train them for work in federal, state, or local government agencies. Today, by contrast, roughly 43 percent of Kennedy School students are from overseas, a result of a conscious effort to alter the composition of the student body in ways that reflect both the nature of contemporary policy problems and the changing global market for public service.

What do these students learn when they come to the Kennedy School? They learn about open markets, the rule of law, the ways that markets can fail, and about how political institutions—and especially democratic institutions—can shape public outcomes for good or ill. Students in the flagship master’s program in public policy take a required course in political ethics, and many students take one or more courses in human rights. Perhaps most important of all, our students spend one to two years with each other, rubbing shoulders and exchanging ideas with their counterparts from over 80 different countries.

These same trends are apparent in executive education. Our executive training programs used to be centered on the U.S. market, but our international offerings have expanded dramatically in the past 10 years. Kennedy School executive programs have enrolled Russian Duma members; Chinese generals; Pakistani, Palestinian, and Israeli civil servants; Asian development leaders; and trade ministers from 20 different countries, among many others. These programs have the added advantage of educating individuals who are already in positions of responsibility and authority, and allowing us to learn from them as well.

…the opportunity to study in the United States can help dispel myths and illusions about the United States itself…the benefit is thatthese students are more likely to have a realistic and generally favorable view of the United States than if they had never studied here.

So how does this help America’s global image? There are two obvious benefits. First, programs like those offered by the Kennedy School (and there are many others) expose foreign students to a set of ideas about governance that are likely to have a broad positive impact over time. At the same time, the opportunity to study in the United States can help dispel myths and illusions about the United States itself. Perhaps most important, foreign students observe the range of opinion within our faculty and student body (and in America itself) and come away with a greater appreciation of the value of tolerance and open debate. They learn this not because we force them to, or because they listen to government propaganda, but because they see it every day in the classroom and in society at large.

The goal of these programs is not to create reliable tools of U.S. influence, of course, and we know that foreign elites who are educated in the United States do not become reflexively pro-American and lose sight of their own country’s interests. Rather, the benefit is that these students are more likely to have a realistic and generally favorable view of the United States than they would have if they had never studied here. In this regard, it is not at all surprising that one of the key architects of Libya’s decision to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs—reformist prime minister Shukri Ghanem—received a Ph.D. in economics from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Former secretary of state Colin Powell understood well the positive effects of foreign elites studying in the United States when he said in 2001 that he could “think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here.”

This process works both ways, of course. American students who come to the Kennedy School (or to similar programs at other universities) learn how the world looks to those who have grown up elsewhere. As these American students venture forth to deal with an increasingly globalized world, an appreciation of how the United States is seen by others can only help their own efforts to make U.S. primacy more tolerable to others.

Conclusion

The United States is likely to be the world’s most powerful country for some time to come, but its position of primacy could evolve in at least two strikingly different ways. In one scenario, the United States would remain the dominant power, and most of the other major powers would find themselves in broad agreement with U.S. aims, policies, and values. One might think of this as a “permissive” world, in which American primacy is seen as broadly beneficial. By contrast, the United States could also remain the dominant power but be seen as increasingly threatening. In this scenario, other states would begin to look for opportunities to make life more difficult for the United States, even if only in small ways. This would be a highly “resistant” world, and U.S. leaders would find it increasingly difficult to achieve even generally desirable ends.

The first of these two alternatives is clearly preferable, for Americans and for most others. And although the primary responsibility rests with our political leaders and professional diplomats, higher education also has a role to play in generating movement toward that preferred world.

In the 2000 presidential campaign, candidate George W. Bush declared that other nations would be attracted to the United States if it were strong but also “humble.” They would be repulsed, he warned, if the United States used its power in an “arrogant” fashion. Bush’s instincts were correct, but his failure to heed his own advice has led to the unfortunate results he predicted. Today’s task is to rebuild the sense of trust, admiration, and legitimacy that the United States once enjoyed, so that the rest of the world turns from looking for ways to tame American power and focuses instead on the benefits that U.S. primacy can bring.


Stephen Walt is academic dean at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs there. His most recent book is Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (2005). Walt can be reached at stephen_walt@harvard.edu.