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Does Soft Power Matter? A Comparative Analysis of Student Exchange Programs

By Carol Atkinson


Democratic governance depends not only on the building of democratic institutions but also on citizens ’ knowledge about how these institutions should function in their everyday lives. I argue that US-hosted educational exchange programs are one mechanism whereby citizens of nondemocratic states might experience life firsthand in a democratic country. Their experiences may impact the political institutions and influence political behavior in their home countries. In order for this process to take place, I argue that at least three contextual conditions are important: (i) the depth and extent of social interactions that occur while abroad, (ii) the sharing of a sense of community or common identity between participants and their hosts, and (iii) the attainment of a politically influential position by the exchange participant when they return home. In this article, I test these hypotheses and find support for what advocates of soft power often contend: US-hosted exchange programs can play an important role in the diffusion of liberal values and practices across the borders of authoritarian states. The current war in Iraq has illustrated the difficulties of imposing democratic institutions in states where democratic norms are underdeveloped and citizens have little previous experience of the everyday functioning of democratic practices. One consequence has been calls for the United States to engage in a ‘‘war of ideas’ ’ with nonliberal forces that have impeded the spread and development of democratic norms and practices. But how might the United States actually ‘‘fight’ ’ such a war? Soft power advocates, US policy makers, and scholars have frequently claimed that US-hosted educational exchange programs might provide one strategy for the United States to effectively engage its ideational adversarie

Year: 2013
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