Higher education shapes foreign policy by influencing global minds. What makes a nation powerful in our modern day world?

Higher education and foreign policy

Higher education shapes foreign policy by influencing global minds. What makes a nation powerful in our modern day world?

Nations have used a variety of foreign policy tools to increase their influence in the world system. One important but underappreciated tool has been higher education. Nations have for some time realised the importance of winning the hearts and minds of elite young individuals among the global public. Consequently, they have built a number of educational institutions at home and abroad to accomplish this objective.

Higher education has served as a strategic tool to increase global influence. China’s Confucius Institutes stand as a glaring example of how nations use education for the promotion of their foreign objectives. Using education as a chariot for obtaining influence in the world is a strategy that nations have embraced for years. Although the benefits are longer-term and dispersed, there is still a most visible impact on those people who have studied abroad or been academically acculturated into the societies they have studied. The strategic use of education is to “capture hearts and minds among the global public.” In this respect, education serves as a war by other means: increasing the influence of some nations relative to others.

One of the more conspicuous programmes of the past has been the Rhodes Scholarship in Great Britain. The Scholarship was a means of bringing leading individuals from the colonies to become indoctrinated into the British way of life and way of thinking. In this way, future leaders of the colonies and influential citizens would support the mother country in colonial affairs, thus creating a stronger and more united colonial system.

In more modern times, the Fulbright programme in the U.S. has financed over 400,000 students from over 155 nations from 1946 to the present, and 40 of these students have become heads of state.  Other such initiatives to use education as a weapon for foreign policy were the Patrice Lumumba University in Russia, which sought to promote socialist principles among Third World citizens, and Australia’s Colombo Plan, which brought students from Asia to study in Australia. The Erasmus+ programme instituted in the European Union has offered similar opportunities for Europe.

Nations use a variety of resources and strategies to maintain their influence in the global system.

Giulio M. Gallarotti

Education and cultural imprinting

The objective of these study abroad programmes is to expose the foreign public to a particular country, culture, and prevailing ideas. It is hoped that the visiting students develop an affection for the host nation. This effect is often discussed within the categories of intercultural competency, cultural IQ, and acculturation. The effect can turn into greater influence for the host nation in a variety of ways. At the elite level, foreign students who go on to become political leaders or influencers in their societies will be more disposed to the objectives of the host nation in their foreign policies. This could turn into advantageous agreements between the two nations, from alliances to trade treaties. If not at the most elite levels, influencers can be important political allies as groups that can lobby for or promote the interests of host nations in the political arena.

Higher education shapes foreign policy by influencing global minds. What makes a nation powerful in our modern day world?
Credit. Midjourney

At the academic level, the educational systems could pass on important ideas that work for the benefit of the host nation. Studying in the U.S., for example, has always been grounded in the study of liberal/democratic principles. Such ideologies would benefit the U.S. greatly if they turned into liberal democratic policies of other nations. At the broadest levels of public engagement, acculturation creates a larger mass of potential ambassadors and consumers for the host nations. People in large numbers who are enamored with a nation and its culture can translate into significant political, social, and economic benefits.

The academic experience is always accompanied by a social experience. Not only do visiting students engage in the ideas and subjects of interest of the host nation, but they are well integrated into the host societies to create a personal experience of cultural engagement. In this respect, the visitors are allowed to live as temporary citizens.

The Fullbright programme and the battle for global influence

Several nations have floated educational initiatives to bolster their influence in the modern era. Perhaps the most conspicuous of these was America’s Fulbright Programme. Some of the more celebrated of these programmes were instituted in the post-WW II era to fight the ideological Cold War. The battle between capitalism and communism was fought on more than a geo-political battlefield; it was also a battle of ideas. Winning the hearts and minds of the public was as important as strategic victories. No system would ever be sustainable unless it were perceived as desirable and legitimate. The high point of this ideological battle through education was the Fulbright Scholarship.  No government ever allocated more resources to a foreign study programme.

The founder, Senator William Fulbright, was a visiting student at Oxford under the Rhodes Scholarship. He became acutely aware of the influence such an experience could have on young minds. The initiative reflected early cold warrior concerns that aside from a strategic balance, the struggle for supremely also was, as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson stated, a “battle for men’s minds and men’s allegiance.” Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued similar language:

Every foreign student attending one of our universities represents an opportunity to enhance democracy in America and to strengthen the cause of freedom abroad.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

The programme was primarily targeted toward an elite demographic. The admission qualifications looked for young and accomplished individuals who had the greatest potential for upward mobility in their societies. Candidates were most often post-graduates of high academic achievement.  The qualifications featured strict language requirements, demonstrated social responsibility, and demonstrated abilities to adjust to foreign living conditions. While selection was based heavily upon the potential success of candidates in their chosen fields, American national interests defined the outlines within which selections would be made. The fields would coincide with broader national objectives mandated by the various foreign Fulbright commissions and their American counterparts in the Department of State.


China’s Confucius Institutes exemplify how nations leverage education to advance their foreign policy objectives, aiming to influence global public opinion and capture hearts and minds. This strategic use of education has historical roots in the Cold War, where ideological battles were fought alongside geopolitical conflicts. The Fulbright Programme, in particular, stands out for its significant resources and elite-focused approach, targeting promising individuals worldwide to imbue them with American values and ideals.

This educational imprinting aims to cultivate future leaders and influencers who may align with the host nation’s interests, fostering alliances, promoting ideologies, and generating economic and social benefits. Ultimately, education serves as a subtle yet potent tool in shaping international relations and projecting soft power on a global scale.


Journal reference

Gallarotti, G. M. (2022). Pedagogical offensives: soft power, higher education and foreign policy. Journal of Political Power15(3), 495-513. https://doi.org/10.1080/2158379X.2022.2127276

Giulio M. Gallarotti is a Professor of Government and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. He has also served as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Economic Theory at the University of Rome. Additionally, he holds the position of Senior Fellow at the Global Climate Innovation Center. He serves as the editor of the book series Social and Political Power at Manchester University Press and holds the position of Chairman of the Research Group on Political Power in the International Political Science Association.