Some time ago I conducted some research on international education as a vehicle of soft power in the United States. The first aim of my research was to determine the intended outcomes of the international education legislation and funding in the United States between 1945 and 2000.
Throughout the United States’ history of international education legislation and funding it is clear that soft power is an underlying objective of the federal government. The term “cultural exchange” is used frequently throughout the related literature and legislative language. Often times the term “cultural exchange” is used interchangeably with the term “international educational exchanges.” The interchangeability of these two terms, however, was more prevalent in the literature and legislation of the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. These two terms were used more separately in the 1970’s through the year 2000.
Another finding is, that for the most part, the language used during the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s focused more on “mutual understanding between cultures” while the language used during the 1990’s and into 2000 had a much stronger tone and emphasized the benefit to the “national security” of the United States. An exception to this is the National Defense Education Act of 1958 which encouraged and supported international education exchanges but the focus was more on U.S. national security and competition with the Soviet Union during this challenging period of the Cold War.
Interestingly, the language used in The International Academic Opportunity Act of 2000 not only focused on the benefit that these study abroad scholarships would give to the United States in terms of soft power and national security but it also focused on the personal benefits that scholarship recipients gain and that the purpose of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship was to better prepare students to assume significant roles in an increasingly global economy. It took until the year 2000 for the federal government to fully understand the economic benefits of international education exchanges and that the economic dimension is just as important to the United States as soft power and national security objectives.
I was also interested in investigating the importance that the international education legislation and literature place on the inflow of international students and scholars into the United States and on the outflow of American students and scholars who are studying and/or conducting research abroad? It’s not surprising that in the years immediately following World War II and into the 1960’s the federal government and the greater higher education community placed significant importance on the inflow of international students and scholars into the United States. Certainly, the federal government saw value in funding and supporting U.S. students and scholars going abroad for academic purposes but their main focus was on the academic inflow into the United States. While support for international education exchanges increased through the last half of the twentieth century, the international education legislative focus of the 1990’s and into 2000 tended to favor the outflow of U.S. students and scholars than on the inflow of academics from abroad. What changed, however, was that major federal legislation focusing on international students and scholars in the United States was found more in the immigration arena.