Argument

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Is Europe Any Good at Soft Power?

The increasingly aggressive authoritarianism of Belarus is an acute test of the EU’s diplomatic self-image.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
A performer on stilts dressed in the colors of the flag of the European Union attends a "March for Europe" gathering to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which created the precursor to the European Union, on March 25, 2017 in Berlin, Germany.
A performer on stilts dressed in the colors of the flag of the European Union attends a "March for Europe" gathering to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which created the precursor to the European Union, on March 25, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Just after the First World War, the United States started a massive, new operation: academic fellowships for foreign students to come and study in the United States. America had just won the war. It was a proud new superpower, eager to put itself on the global map for the first time. The idea behind the fellowships was to spread that message and inform the world about a country that many, at the time, still knew little about. What better way than to invite the world’s best and brightest to come and study, and give them a world-class education in the best academic tradition while immersing them in the American way of life, ideas, and values?

It’s time for the European Union to follow this example. It should set up an ambitious, generous program for foreign students to study at European universities and use it as a soft power tool. This program should start immediately, and right at Europe’s doorstep, as a direct European response to President Alexander Lukashenko’s hijack of a Ryanair flight in May to abduct opposition leader Roman Protasevich: Europe should invite thousands of Belarusians to come and study and do research at universities all over Europe.

Like America 100 years ago, Europe wants to put itself on the map as a geopolitical actor. In a rapidly changing world, with U.S. priorities shifting from Europe to Asia, Europeans are busy discussing new theoretical concepts such as “strategic autonomy.” They understand they need to learn to stand on their own feet and rely less on U.S. protection. Many of these discussions involve hard power, with a focus on European security and common defense initiatives.

Just after the First World War, the United States started a massive, new operation: academic fellowships for foreign students to come and study in the United States. America had just won the war. It was a proud new superpower, eager to put itself on the global map for the first time. The idea behind the fellowships was to spread that message and inform the world about a country that many, at the time, still knew little about. What better way than to invite the world’s best and brightest to come and study, and give them a world-class education in the best academic tradition while immersing them in the American way of life, ideas, and values?

It’s time for the European Union to follow this example. It should set up an ambitious, generous program for foreign students to study at European universities and use it as a soft power tool. This program should start immediately, and right at Europe’s doorstep, as a direct European response to President Alexander Lukashenko’s hijack of a Ryanair flight in May to abduct opposition leader Roman Protasevich: Europe should invite thousands of Belarusians to come and study and do research at universities all over Europe.

Like America 100 years ago, Europe wants to put itself on the map as a geopolitical actor. In a rapidly changing world, with U.S. priorities shifting from Europe to Asia, Europeans are busy discussing new theoretical concepts such as “strategic autonomy.” They understand they need to learn to stand on their own feet and rely less on U.S. protection. Many of these discussions involve hard power, with a focus on European security and common defense initiatives.

But on a continent that has become deeply pacifist over the decades and where European foreign policy remains crippled by unanimity rules, hard power will always have it limits. (Just imagine that U.S. foreign policy required unanimity in the Senate—and that the Senate was comprised of the collected state governors.) Europe needs to make much better use of the soft power tools it has at its disposal, if only because the threshold for such actions is lower. Fortunately, many tools are there already, including academic fellowships. The problem is that they are hardly used at all.

In the case of Belarus, a grant-based fellowship program could be the political gesture that so many Europeans are looking for, punishing the regime while helping its citizens. It would be comparable to the brilliant response by the United Kingdom to the de-facto Chinese takeover of Hong Kong last year: offering tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens the possibility to acquire residence permits in the UK. About 35,000 people have already applied since January.

Time and again, opinion polls show Europeans are skeptical about European power as it is exerted. They find the EU too slow, too weak, and too complex. But when asked what the EU should be, their bitterness often melts away. As a recent poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations showed, they have little trouble spelling out what they want Europe to be: “A beacon of democracy and human rights, prioritizing the rule of law and high democratic standards.” Just like many Americans 100 years ago, many Europeans think they have a mission in a world full of turmoil, and they want to be proud of it. Why not turn this sentiment into a major foreign policy tool, by sharing this with the rest of the world—starting with an invitation to thousands of young Belarusian students to study in the EU, alongside Belarusian academics who join European research programs?

In the 1980s, Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power”—the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without coercion or force. In his 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, he calculated that between 1945 and 2000 alone, 700,000 people from around the world had studied in the United States on American fellowships. Some American fellowships are organized by public institutions, such as the Fulbright Program. But most are private initiatives. Since the First World War, American governments have actively encouraged the private sector and charitable organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation to use fellowships to promote American interests abroad. They invite students to study and academics to teach, do master’s degrees, or take part in prestigious research programs.

As the French historian and jazz expert Ludovic Tournès writes in his recent book Américanisation; une histoire mondiale XVIIIe-XXIe siècles, a brilliant analysis on American influence in the world from the 18th century until now, most American fellowship programs are long (running over several years) and generous. Tournès spends an entire chapter on the potential of fellowships and other forms of cultural diplomacy “to conquer hearts and minds.”

American fellowships started at a time when European countries were in ruins. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom had academic exchange programs and fellowships before the First World War. But they had to discontinue them afterwards for lack of funds and teaching staff—with 20 million dead in Europe, it was one of the deadliest wars in history. Moreover, the creation of many new countries in Europe and the rise of nationalism led to the establishment of new, hard borders that complicated cross-border travel. Right at that point, the United States stepped in, rapidly establishing itself as an academic powerhouse. Exchange programs were signed with France (1921), Czechoslovakia (1922), Germany (1924), Hungary (1925), and so on. Soon, the United States became a prime destination for European students. Asia, Latin America, and other parts of the world followed later.

There are many reasons why many Eastern Europeans are pro-American, and remained so even during the Trump presidency. The fact that many members of the Eastern European elite speak English with an American accent is no coincidence.

One of the greatest successes of European integration is the Erasmus exchange program, which enables students and professionals to study and practise their trade in another European country for six months. It is massive and popular, and is relatively cheap. Each year some students from neighboring third countries, such as Belarus, are allowed to participate. In addition, the universities of Warsaw and Vilnius also invite Belarusians to come and study, teach, or do research.

There have been several appeals in the past few weeks to extend those programs, including one by European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans. But Erasmus fellowships only last six months, and national grants in just a few neighboring countries to Belarus are not the same as a strong, common European policy. If Europe wants to punish the regime in Belarus without hurting its citizens, it needs to build a massive and more generous European program, offering Belarusian citizens the full academic experience at Europe’s best universities, bathing them in the tradition of independent research and free debate of which Europeans are so proud.

This would be a smart and timely move, since Europe does not have many other policy options when it comes to Belarus. Lukashenko has burned all bridges with the EU, turning to Russia for help. More European sanctions are on the way, but the chances of Lukashenko doing what his people want are extremely slim: He will not move under European pressure. This leaves academic fellowships as one the few policy tools the EU has in Belarus.

Of course, there are downsides to such an initiative. By now Belarus has put exit restrictions in place, as Hong Kong did after the British offer of residency permits. The harder Lukashenko makes it for Belarusians to leave, the more his people will treat European scholarships as a way to seek asylum instead of studying. Another risk is Minsk placing undercover agents among the students.

And finally, real “European Fulbrights” would have to cover several years and should be accompanied by generous grants for rent and food. EU member states, used to treating every policy developed by the EU as an opportunity to cut corners to save costs, must be persuaded that stinginess would be counterproductive in this case. This program must be fully funded, otherwise many Belarusians will not be able to join. The aim is to conquer hearts and minds and spread values. The result cannot be the impression that the EU doesn’t care enough about democracy and human rights in Belarus.

Despite these risks and downsides, the idea remains irresistible. European fellowships would be a perfect fit for Europe. In the podcast The Rachman Review, Katia Glod, a Belarusian policy analyst in London, recently explained that Belarusian citizens have pinned all their hopes on Europe. They are even supportive of sanctions, she said—anything that can bring democracy and the rule of law. If these people do not deserve European scholarships, it is difficult to see who does.

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She currently lives in Oslo, Norway.

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