The Best Way to Spread Democracy Abroad? Welcome Foreign Students

As Washington wonders how to encourage democratic reform in North Korea, Burma, and Iran and how to shore up new democracies in the Middle East and Africa, it seems clear what not to do: invasion. On measures of civil and political rights, countries we have invaded (Afghanistan, Iraq) are roughly equal with those we haven’t (Iran and Burma, respectively).

As it turns out, soft power may be far more effective. In particular, educating future leaders here in the U.S. could be one of the most powerful and cost-effective ways to spread democracy that we have. In 2008, about one in five of the 3.3 million foreign students enrolled worldwide were studying in the U.S., and while that’s still a tiny share of the planet’s 7 billion population, foreign-educated students have an outsize impact on their home countries. Not least, a lot of them end up in very important positions. As many as two-thirds of developing country leaders in the middle of the last decade had studied abroad. A few years ago, a State Department list of senior government officials worldwide who had studied in the U.S. included more than 40 presidents and about 30 prime ministers. The full total may be more than 200.

Where and what those students learn appears to have lasting influence. In looking at the personal background of over 900 presidents and prime ministers in developing countries since 1960, Paris School of Economics scholar Marion Mercer found that around two-thirds had a migration experience, which in turn appeared to have a significant influence on their subsequent leadership. When leaders who had spent time abroad as military attachés or for military training came to power, they were more likely to restrict democracy. But those who had studied abroad in colleges or universities earlier in their lives were more likely to improve the strength of democracy, especially in autocratic countries. The record is far from perfect: Syria’s Bashar al-Assad studied ophthalmology in the United Kingdom, for example. But, overall, Mercer’s work suggests studying abroad can be a powerful positive force for democratic leadership.

Beyond the effects on global political leaders, Antonio Spilimbergo, an economist at the International Monetary Fund, found that countries where more people had been educated abroad were more likely to be democratic compared with countries where there are fewer foreign-educated individuals—but only if those former students studied in democratic countries. That (partial) relationship holds even though many foreign students don’t come home. Perhaps as many as half of foreign students in the U.S. stay past graduation at least for some time, but they still talk to friends and family at home—who listen, not least because many of the migrants are sending back a lot of money.

Other research confirms that migrants don’t have to return home to have an impact on democracy. According to a study published by Germany’s Institute for the Study of Labor, in Moldovan villages that have sent more emigrants to the EU, the communist party receives a declining share of the vote. Similar villages that have sent more emigrants to Russia see the opposite pattern. A 10 percent rise in the scale of westward migration from a village reduces the communist vote share by 6 percent. Across 195 countries, analysis published by the World Bank similarly suggests that overall migration flows are associated with gains in economic and political freedom in home countries.

This recent scholarship suggests two things: Student experiences can have a huge impact on attitudes toward democracy and governance, and those with foreign education are an incredibly influential group in their home countries regardless of where they live. In national security terms, that points to a high return on efforts to increase the number of foreign students studying in U.S. universities—and suggests that recent policy has been going in completely the wrong direction. The share of foreign students studying in the U.S. dropped from 23 percent to 18 percent between 2000 and 2009, a decrease attributed not least to toughened immigration procedures.

We want those future leaders coming to the U.S. Along with easing the burden of visa application, the U.S. should offer more financial support for scholarship programs and consider it a highly effective form of foreign aid. The Fulbright program alone has supported the education of 29 heads of state or government. For U.S. government funding of $243 million, supplemented by $80 million in overseas and private contributions, there are around 3,000 students in the U.S. as well as over 4,000 U.S. citizens abroad. That makes the program considerably cheaper than other U.S. efforts to make friends overseas—it’s about $20,000 less per enrollee than the Peace Corps, for example. On an annual basis, the price tag is about 0.2 percent of the annual cost of the military effort to promote security and democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2011.

Meanwhile, given the negative impact of overseas military-related residency for future democratic prospects, it might be worth ensuring the Department of Defense is suitably emphasizing the importance of democratic rule and civilian oversight in its training programs for foreign visitors. Otherwise it might be part of the problem rather than the solution. These days, when it comes to promotion of democracy, the only real power may be soft power.