themes / Dangerous Liaisons

Soft power – subtle and powerful

Agnieszka Słodownik

The American on the roof (of the world)

The French Riviera’s expatriates are young vagabonds floating through life effortlessly. Here, doing nothing and other sophisticated forms of escapism are in vogue. Dubai offers opportunity to show off in one of the identical, mass-produced night clubs with no soul, nor ambience. Individuals orbit around the ordinariness. The expat community in Kathmandu is a different cup of tea. The capital of Nepal welcomes the visitor with a flood of young sharp people who question fashion and intellectual stereotypes.

Many of them are Americans. Bright Yankees? Shocking. They read and speak fluent Nepali, use Sanskrit. Most of them are still before their MA. Every now and then a thirty-year-old Ph.D. candidate. Sometimes a professor, too. One after another introduce themselves as the American Fulbright Foundation grantees. According to the Statute the organisation’s objective is to enable mutual understanding and agreement between the citizens of the United States and other countries through the dialogue of ideas, knowledge, skills and experience via scientific and cultural exchange. The Foundation pursues its mission by granting the Americans visits abroad in almost every country of the world, and hosting representatives of other nations at universities in the United States. Research is carried out within a broad spectrum of fields: humanities, engineering, social sciences and hard science. The beneficiaries of the program are people at different levels of scientific hierarchy: students with a BA degree, doctorate candidates, teachers.

In order to get a Fulbright scholarship one must be patient. The procedure takes months, sometimes even a year. This applies to both the Americans and non-Americans. Filling endless forms. Preparing a research project. Collecting college letters of recommendation. Sometimes passing verification of foreign language skills. Next phase – selecting the target country – has to be thought through. In case of non-Americans the planned scope of study must be well established within the American context. After completing and delivering documentation, provided that it fulfils all the requirements, the applicant is invited to the board of examiners. Professors in the field and ex-scholars ask questions and applicants defends their thesis. Following this meeting, the committee issues an evaluation from 1 to 5, where 1 is a strong candidate recommendation. The next step is sending the final version of the application. Then comes the most exciting phase: waiting. Sometimes the applicant finds her or his name on the final list of candidates, but learns that in order to get a scholarship he or she has to wait further: it will be granted only if the next person on the list does not accept it.

The chosen ones, and there are few, have the right to feel satisfaction. It is a lot like an ennoblement. Eli, one of American scholars (political science) picked Nepal because of its political system. He wanted to study the structure of government in a developing country. He opened the world map to see which country is democratizing. That is how he selected his destination. He found himself in Kathmandu with a handful of clothes and a suitcase full of books. “I came to study the systemic transformation from monarchy to democracy and the process of drafting a new constitution. I wanted to know the politics outside the U.S., to discover another culture, face the challenge, get out of the comfort zone and throw myself in an unknown context. After finishing the studies I got a job in Carter Center NGO and stayed in Nepal. All thanks to the Fulbright scholarship.”

“The scholarship has given me freedom.” – says Kathryn, an American student who studies cultural heritage preservation programs in Nepal. “I had plenty of time to learn Nepalese and get an insight into areas beyond the subject of my research: the conflict of monarchists with the Maoists, Nepal's history. I saved enough money to be able to work as a volunteer for two Nepalese NGOs. I think the main strength of this program is that it allows scholars to develop their interest in an unexpected direction, as well as obtain skills and additional knowledge.” I ask what does the twenty page paper handed in at the end of the scholarship contribute to science. “Not much. I do not think my research is innovative and crucial. However, it is unreasonable to expect younger grantees to produce serious academic publications. One year scholarship is like a warm-up for further serious study. Doctorate students have more chances to show what they can do in the scientific field, but we – younger scholars – learn to learn, gain language skills and contacts: aspects that are unknown to us at the beginning of the scholarship.”

Eli: “I didn’t produce a Nobel winning paper, but I collected a considerable amount of data and information about the inner workings of democratizing country and learned how to do research in the field. This is knowledge which no institution or university class would have ever given me.”

From the very beginning young scholars fascinated me with their openness, knowledge, even the language they use. Their English is spotless: actual nouns instead of “you know”, “like” and “whatever”.

The concept of cultural and scientific exchange seems beautiful and noble. It is the first time since my stay in the New York Junior High School that my strong stereotype of a typical American is weakened. And I also feel some form of nostalgia for the old Polish intelligentsia, wiped off the face of the earth long time ago. Suddenly one of the scholars say: “You know, but we are also spies.” This is where the conspiracy theory comes in.

The American club in Kathmandu

I meet with one of the Fulbright scholars in the American Club called “Phora Durbar” (literally: “Phora Palace”). The club turns out to be a placed on a parcel in the heart of Kathmandu, enclosed by a high wall. I always thought that it was a military area. It is located in one of the few open green spaces of the city. It is surrounded by armed guards. Maoist soldiers carry weapons around all the time, but somehow I still freeze of terror at this sight. To enter “Phora”

I have to:
a. be invited,
b. go through the metal detector,
c. show the contents of my bag,
d. give my passport to guards for the time of the visit.

I leave behind the hordes of “glue-kids” sniffing glue from their bags. Dirty, dusty children with running noses, trying to sell postcards to white people for few Nepalese rupees. I enter paradise. Americans are cheerfully playing tennis, splashing in the pool and drinking American beer. There is always electricity (and therefore – the internet) and water here, while in real Kathmandu there is always a shortage of these goods. That's of course if they are available at all. My newly established positive image of USA suddenly disappears.

“«Phora» is a palace which honours the American ideology – neocolonial modern racism, materialism, insecurity and fear” – sums up my anonymous interlocutor of American nationality. “In theory, this is not an Americans-only club.” – he adds – “Yet the number of Nepali visitors is ridiculously low. American holidays, such as Independence Day, are often celebrated here. Last year, every American could come to the July 4th celebration for 1000 Nepalese rupees and take up to four additional guests.. However, the rule was: everybody is invited except Nepalese, due to concerns about safety risks. What risks?! After you enter you are searched and go through the metal detector. A beautiful symbol of the American obsession with security. We need to protect ourselves even if it is impossible to achieve real safety. Four armed guards will not stop 500 Maoists if they decide to ram down the gate. Another charming aspect is that, apart from a few African-Americans, all visitors are white and those working there are all dark-skinned people. This is a colonial dream. As if I lived in the southern United States during slavery era. «Phora» shows no willingness to mix with the local residents. This attitude is full of hidden xenophobia and hostility.”

Lofty Fulbright ideas on one hand, and “Phora” on the other. Hold our values and support our cause, but do not get near our success and wealth – Share Limited.

Two contradictory attitudes interfere in a distant city on the roof of the world. A question arises whether the presence of Fulbrights has, in addition to the academic purpose, any additional significance. And what is a place like “Phora” doing in Nepal? A club where students can separate themselves from the local world and comfortably write their paper about openness to the local culture? Grantees respond: “Nepal itself is of no interest to the U.S., because there are no resources here, but the location between China and India is really relevant. Fulbright scholars are a potential tool for getting insight into the local situation.”

Soft and powerful

Kathryn: “Fulbright Program is of course fulfilling its declaration: building mutual understanding between citizens of the United States and other nations, initiating the exchange of ideas, knowledge, and so forth. It gives the U.S. the so-called human face. Many Americans despise the policy of their government and work for people whose country they research. Program does a good job in showing the world a more reasonable, educated, empathizing American intellectual, which is usually not seen in the media, nor in the White House. On the other hand, I think that the Fulbright grant was enacted because it was perceived as a tool of American soft power, the non-aggressive form of impact.”

‘Soft power’ is an antonym of ‘hard power’. It is the country's capacity to attract to its values, beliefs, goals. The ability to shape one's preferences with the not obvious, intangible resources such as the attractive personality, culture, and politics which seems to be lawful or offer moral values. Forming other nation’s preferences without the use of force or money. The author of the term, Joseph Nye, said: “If the leader represents the values which others want to follow, governance costs less.” ( “Soft power and leadership”, 2004) At the end of the day the others do not want to be different.

American Fulbrights are a political investment. For Kathryn the program provides the United States with local experts who speak the local language and who could help the U.S. government if it ever decided to war with the country in question. “I have no doubt that American scientist grantees spread American policies and ideology in countries in which they work. My supervisor used to be a Fulbright Scholar during the Cold War. Motivation for sending him for studies in Afghanistan was strongly influenced by such hidden reasons. During the reception before his departure, students had to take an oath of loyalty to the United States and swear not to promote communism abroad. Clearly we serve as an instrument of American diplomacy and politics, no matter how much we rely on, or reject our government. You can call us spies or informants, if you want. Even the representative of the state at my official acceptance of the new fellows identified us as the best tool of American soft power, thereby proving that this type of thinking is still present.”

Eli: “I agree that the mission of the program is to increase mutual understanding between U.S. citizens and other nations. Time spent in Nepal allowed me to show others how Americans can be different from their stereotypical image. Many people were in advance convinced of our unprecedented wealth and arrogance. Those views fade away as soon as the personal bonds are formed. U.S. foreign policy, especially in recent years, is not consistent with what majority of U.S. citizens believe in.” Speaking of Americans being perceived as very rich, I ask how much is the grant. “Some would say: too much. Others: enough. It depends from which side you look at it. Personally, I think it was the amount adequate to function in Kathmandu and maintain a comfortable expat lifestyle. However, somebody might say that the money was ridiculous, much larger than the average income of the richest Kathmanduites.” Indeed, scholars do not have to mind the prices. They can afford eating in restaurants every day, and live in apartments with good standard. What comes to mind is the psychological concept of a double bind: two contradictory messages sent from the same source on two levels. One is a verbal message: Americans are not rolling in money. The second, non-verbal: yes, they are.
The game seems to be very subtle. The world gets a very positive image of the United States, but yet Fulbrights are not ordinary representatives of the American nation. Quite the opposite: they are exceptions to the rule. The elite that gives America an excellent PR.

From the third point of view

How does it look from the perspective of a Fulbright grantee visiting in the U.S.? Robert Luczak, one of the Polish Fulbright Scholars (Ph.D. studies, political geography), is impressed by the level of teaching which he experienced during his scholarship in California. The access to materials and staff was extraordinary. Luczak compares the effect of his six-month stay to five years of studies in Poland (“Studying at a Polish university resembles feudal relationships.”). “The scientific aspect is unquestionably the main advantage of the Fulbright scholarship, but it's hard not to see how America is forcing its PR on us.”

Robert describes an almost promotional visit to Washington, weekly dinner invitations, as well as the fact that he was offered some American citizen rights: social security, the possibility of opening a bank account. “Although at the end of the scholarship the visa conditions do not allow you to stay in the U.S. over the next two years (apart from strictly tourist purposes), but there is this elusive feeling that after that time America would welcome you back – the intellectual cream of the crop.”

“The Fulbright Program to the US fits in with this whole «Brain drain» – says Kathryn. “People may not be eligible for a permanent stay for two years after finishing the original stay, but if you complete the Fulbright scholarship without any problems, you are almost guaranteed to get a visa in the future. It will also give you a huge help in getting a job. It encourages people to come back after inculcating them with American worldview.”

Anna Pochmara studied English philology at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. “Everything depends on the subject and the place of studies. Environment of the humanities, especially philology, is much more left-wing then other sciences. Some say that English literature departments at high ranked universities are the last bastion of communism. It is certainly a profound exaggeration, but professors whose classes I attended do not see the U.S. as promised land with the best political system in the world. If I looked at my scholarship in the context of soft power I would point at a Chicago seminar in which I participated during the presidential election. The teachers arranged a staging of the campaign for us. We organised our own election: the person who won tried to emulate Obama's style. The whole event was probably supposed to give us insight into the political system.”

The program is too serious to afford to be a simple political tool, but that aspect is still present. Pochmara: “It certainly has its share of political utility. Obviously now I like the U.S. government more, since it financed me for a year. The program breaks stereotypes, too. When you live on campus, you never come across Americans so fat that they have to use wheelchairs to move, but only the young and very open smart people who know where Poland and Warsaw are, who know history. Therefore, your start to see the United States in a more positive light.”

“Americans aren't the U.S. government. Nor are Poles the Polish government. I think this is why the US government can use American citizens to cover its inhumane behaviour – exploitation and wars – with a good and human face” – says Kathryn. “The human face wins people over. The previously uniform image splits in half, with the hated government on one side, and the admired citizens on the other. Country's appeal becomes harder to resist, and the government becomes harder to attack.”

‘Soft power’ is by definition a subtle form of gaining influence or authority. Due to intangibility of its measures and the outcomes, it is much harder to grasp and define than the ‘hard power’. This in turn builds up its advantage over aggression, as the target of influence might not know of being subjected. It can be much more efficient than the traditional methods. The Fulbright Program should be evaluated primarily in terms of research, but we should also use it as an insight into the concept of ‘soft power’ – a calculated political expansion under the cover of spreading official values of a given country.

Translated by Agnieszka Słodownik and Krzysztof Heymer


Some names of people quoted in the article have been changed.

Originally published in issue #21 of Biweekly