In 1990, Joseph Nye coined the term soft power to mean “the ability to obtain what one wants through co-option and attraction” (Wikipedia), in contrast to using payment and coercion, which is hard power. In the realm of nations, we can cast hard power as the military might and cash resources, but soft power is harder to pin down. There are many (conflicting) discussions about the accuracy of this separation and what falls into which category but what is generally agreed is that a nation’s culture is one of its most engaging forms of co-option and attraction.
And one of the most enduring contributors to a nation’s culture, and an indication of its future culture, is its education system.
While a country’s military might is generally directly linked to all of its other hard power indicators, its educational influence and culture are harder to pin down. I can count tanks, or dollars in the bank, but should I be measuring number of students, number of academics, world standing, literacy or some complex composite measure?
Consider France. The French Alliance Française has been one of the most important ways of spreading French language and culture in the period following the decline of French as the dominant language of diplomacy. It’s an educational approach that spreads a very distinct cultural message – French is sophisticated, fun and something desirable. Do we measure its success by number of French tourist, French speakers or number of Alliance Française offices?
We are all aware that many governments are trying to quantify the efforts of educators, using standardised tests and other performance measures, but this is generally more linked to funding measures and notional ranking structures. What if we could quantify our educational contribution to culture then we can immediately provide a lever for a government in terms of dollars or cultural impact.
Imagine that we could say that investing $10,000,000 in education was equivalent to the impact of a strong positive leadership decision. Or that it would bring in 5,000 more students, who would then take our education culture back out to the world.
If we could get soft power and hard power on to the same table, could we ever say that an centrally-funded teacher post-graduate study program was equal to an aircraft carrier in terms of regional stabilisation. Soft power needs hard currency, which means that the funding agencies and the government have to be willing to put money into it. And the first step is making sure that the decision makers understand how important soft power, cultural impact and education are. The second is making sure that it’s the kind of importance that gets funded, rather than recognised and left without money.
Obviously, this is a difficult problem to solve – but the first problem is reminding people that education makes our culture and our culture has a strong influence on the world’s view of us. Regrettably, soft power is easy to talk about but, ultimately, it’s a very hard sell.