Schools Training

No moral dilemma about soft diplomacy

19 FEB 2014

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Maybe I am getting old and careless – but sometimes I think that we in higher education worry just a bit too much. This thought struck me again last week, when I read a thoughtful article by Jane Knight in University World News titled “The limits of soft power in higher education”.

Although soft diplomacy is a relatively new term, the author fears that “international higher education has been drawn to [it] like bees to honey”. In fact, “many hail it as a fundamental premise of today’s international education engagement”.

All very dangerous, since “the basic notion of power is about gaining some kind of dominance”. Higher education should instead be driven by notions of mutual power, which “need not be a zero sum game” but based on “the respective strengths of countries’ higher education and research institutions” and yielding “solutions and benefits for all players”.

I couldn’t agree more – with the last bit, at least. But are these two concepts really so incompatible?

There is nothing new in countries using education to boost their own interests – and many of the historical motives have been a great deal more sinister than anything we see in modern notions of soft power.

Witness the fact that one of the first tasks that the newly formed Universities Bureau of the British Empire – now the much more democratic Association of Commonwealth Universities, or ACU – was asked to do by the British government a century ago was to drum up support for the Great War among ‘university men’.

Or the hundreds of thousands of students recruited from throughout the developing world over decades to study carefully staged curricula in Eastern Europe.

Today’s desire to use soft diplomacy is not in the same league.

Driven more by governments than universities, it certainly seeks to use the power of higher education to increase national benefit – but no more than work funded by business or other interests, whose support is generally welcomed by the sector, seeks to derive financial benefits for those organisations.

A common language

Moreover, the two main reasons why higher education seems such a good focus for soft power (or public diplomacy) purposes represent quite a good fit with concepts that we value.


Read full article: University World News