Higher Ed as a Weapon

April 12, 2011


Those of us who call ourselves international educators often become overly absorbed in the minutiae of our work, obsessing over various quantitative and qualitative indicators of success. After all, it's exhilarating, rewarding and unrelenting. We bask in the glow of accomplishment and gratification, knowing that we can make a difference in the lives of individuals and even nations.

There is much more to our work, however, than the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from helping a young person realize her dream of overseas study or bringing peoples closer together. It is not all about sitting around the proverbial campfire, hand in hand, singing "It's a Small World (After All)."

By assuming a technocratic stance, we fail to ask ourselves such fundamental questions as: Whose agenda are we advancing? Whose bidding are we doing? In a very real sense we miss the forest for the trees. A 2008 diplomatic memo about the role America can play in reforming Vietnam’s education system provides an intriguing and instructive case in point, and shows the extent to which our work can be used as a tool of soft power.

The Memo

A diplomatic cable known as the "U.S.-Vietnam Education Memo," which originated in the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi in the spring of 2008 and surreptitiously found its way onto the Internet, offers telling examples and revealing insights into the use of education as a tool of soft power.

Its 4,330 words and eight pages, chock-full of optimistic references to seizing opportunities and capitalizing on the admiration of Vietnamese for the U.S. higher education system, contain a Chief of Mission's well-documented, cogently argued and passionate appeal. The memo begins with a sweeping indictment of Vietnamese higher education and an unvarnished hope:

"Moving from today’s failed system, protected by a hide-bound and largely unqualified hierarchy of educators, will not be easy, but the United States has a unique opportunity to make a big difference and put its stamp on Vietnam's education system well into the future... If we walk through this open door [my italics], we will be engaging, with the explicit support of top leaders, in a unique opportunity to profoundly influence on [sic] Vietnam's educational system."

It ends with an action request entitled "New Educational Programs Require New Washington Resources." "While we are already making progress," the authors note with a degree of self-satisfaction and eager anticipation, "greater resources will allow us to advance this agenda much further."

While the memo includes noble references to helping Vietnam "produce the managers and skilled workers needed to keep its economic expansion on track and to lift more of the population out of poverty," the core message is expressed most succinctly and powerfully in this passage: "Adding new foreign assistance resources now and supporting the creation of a wide range of strategic public-private partnerships will maximize American influence on Vietnam’s educational system and thus on the future shape of Vietnamese society."

The U.S. is portrayed as a knight in shining armor, with its renowned can-do attitude and munificent spirit, coming to the rescue of millions of desperate Vietnamese students and parents. An example of this messianic complex, infused with wishful thinking, reads as follows: "In responding to Vietnam's call, we would ensure not only that Vietnam's tens of millions of students, but also their education-obsessed parents, see the United States as a key partner in their personal and collective futures."

Over half of Vietnam's population is under 25 years of age, which means that the "American War,” as it is known in Vietnam, is something most Vietnamese have learned about only from textbooks and family members. This consciousness, combined with an openness to and curiosity about the world, including generally positive perceptions of the U.S., creates favorable conditions to influence a generation and, possibly, the future of a country. At least, this is the wish expressed in the memo.

In The Limits of Power -- The End of American Exceptionalism, Andrew Bacevich describes American exceptionalism, a unique incarnation of U.S. nationalism that is of particular relevance to Vietnam, in the following way:

"Humility imposes an obligation of a different sort. It summons Americans to see themselves without blinders. The enemy of humility is sanctimony, which gives rise to the conviction that American values and beliefs are universal and that the nation itself serves providentially assigned purposes. This conviction finds expression in a determination to remake the world in what we imagine to be America's image."

In essence, education is seen as the ultimate soft power tool, a highly effective means of influence and a far-reaching agent of change in a long-term strategy to mold Vietnam in America's image, accomplishing through peaceful means what the United States failed to achieve through those of a military nature in the Second Indochina War.

'Just Because I'm Paranoid Doesn't Mean They're Not Out to Get Me'

What is so odious about the memo is not the incendiary rhetoric, the condescending tone, or the lack of veracity of the information presented. The facts, figures, analysis and assertion that Vietnam's higher education system is in crisis are on the mark and mirror what you find in the state-controlled Vietnamese media on an almost daily basis. It is that the United States brazenly seeks to exploit a glaring weakness in Vietnamese society for geopolitical gain, to walk through an open door, as it were.

The Vietnamese have in general long since "moved on" vis-a-vis the war, a salve to many Americans who come to Vietnam for the first time, anxious about how they will be perceived and treated. But Americans, U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs,) and the U.S. government nonetheless retain a "special" status because of the bloodstained history between the two nations. This translates into more attention, increased scrutiny and greater suspicion than for other governments and organizations.

After all, three million Vietnamese perished in the war and millions of survivors suffered as a result of the debilitating U.S.-led economic embargo that was imposed in 1975 and lifted in 1994, a prelude to the normalization of diplomatic relations between the former enemies a year later. There are living reminders of the physical legacy of the war in the remaining Amerasians, veterans and others who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) and the hundreds of thousands of victims -- young and old -- of Agent Orange and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).

From an official Vietnamese perspective the U.S. strategy outlined in the memo is a textbook example of why "peaceful evolution," a long-term attempt to effect system change through peaceful means, looms large in Vietnam's political vocabulary and why its government is (and probably should be) paranoid about U.S. intentions in its country. Not surprisingly, there are individuals and factions within the Vietnamese government and Communist Party who are concerned about what they perceive to be an orchestrated attempt to promote a "color revolution."

While the official Vietnamese view may exaggerate the scope, potency and immediacy of the threat, the general thrust of its assessment is accurate. The memo, a leaked document that reflects the true thinking and actual plans of U.S. policy makers, is compelling proof.

After reminding readers "just how much we are already doing with current resources" and "how significant and unique an opportunity we face today," it concludes with this plea and prediction: "With just a fraction of spending now devoted to some of other programs and activities in the region, we can reshape this nation in ways that guarantee a deep, positive impact for decades to come. If we want the Vietnam of 2020 to look more like South Korea than China, now is the time to act."

Following this line of reasoning, the U.S. government -- in its dreams -- could have its cake and it eat it, too: close ties to the U.S., Vietnam's metamorphosis into the Southeast Asian equivalent of South Korea and its possible emergence as a regional counterforce to Vietnam's "big brother" to the north and U.S. nemesis, China.

Of 'Blue Sky' Exercises and Pie in the Sky

The Embassy staff who penned this erstwhile confidential document seem almost giddy with excitement at the prospect that the U.S. could somehow influence the political course of events in Vietnam through educational exchange and in-country activities in support of higher education.

The official author, the former ambassador Michael Michalak, who with ample justification referred to himself as the "education ambassador" throughout most of his three-and-a-half-year tenure, concludes by noting that "Many will read this message as a 'blue sky' exercise, perhaps shaking their heads in wonder that a Chief of Mission would forward such a broad range of suggestions. Clearly, our proposals need to be considered within the universe of competing demands."

Aside from the officially desired impact of current and proposed in-country projects, one of the more dubious assumptions of the "US-Vietnam Education Memo" is that Vietnamese who study in the U.S. will return home not only as friends of America but as friends of the U.S. government. (In the 2009-10 academic year, there were more than 13,000 Vietnamese studying in the U.S. Vietnam ranks ninth among all places of origin, according to the Open Doors 2010 report.) The memo notes that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung "has also asked for our help in launching the Ph.D. studies in the United States of at least 2,500 young Vietnamese, on the understanding that these men and women will return as the core of the nation’s political and academic elite in the decades to come."

The idea, so it goes, is that U.S.-educated Vietnamese will be positively predisposed toward things American, including U.S. policy objectives and Pax Americana. The official hope, steeped in arrogance and solipsism, is that many will be in a position to implement Amercentric change in the decades to come and will be amenable to doing so.

For those Vietnamese who benefit from one of the few U.S. government scholarships available to them (e.g., Fulbright Student Program, Vietnam Education Foundation) there is also the expectation that, once welcomed into the fold, alumni will feel eternally grateful for the opportunity they've been given and act accordingly down the road.

The letter and spirit of the memo are not exactly what Sen. J. William Fulbright had in mind when he proposed the creation of what has become the U.S. government's flagship scholarship program and one of its more noble undertakings. Fulbright once said about the objectives of educational exchange: "Its purpose is to acquaint Americans with the world as it is and to acquaint students and scholars from many lands with America as it is--not as we wish it were or as we might wish foreigners to see it, but exactly as it is -- which by my reckoning is an 'image' of which no American need be ashamed." (From the foreword to The Fulbright Program: A History)

Like any country, the United States has its strengths and successes -- models, approaches, ways of thinking -- that could be adapted and emulated in a country like Vietnam. The U.S. also has its shortcomings, red flags and cautionary tales. It is, in the words of Anatole Lieven, author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, "a mortal nation among nations," not the shining city on a hill that many of its citizens believe it to be. The notion that international educational exchange should contribute to remaking other societies in the United States' image is not only cynical and misguided; it is also delusional -- so much pie in the sky.


Mark A. Ashwill is managing director and founder of Capstone Vietnam, a Hanoi-based human resource development company. He was country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam from 2005 to 2009, and is author of Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads (with Thai Ngoc Diep). He blogs at An International Educator in Vietnam.

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