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America and Britain are still educating the world’s leaders

America and Britain are still educating the world’s leaders

by host

Walter Ellis is a Northern Ireland-born, France-based journalist and commentator. He’s the author of “The Beginning of the End: The Crippling Disadvantage of a Happy Irish Childhood.”  

Who knew that Viktor Orbán, the autocratic prime minister of Hungary and friend in adversity of Russian President Vladimir Putin, shared the same tutor at Oxford as former United States President and Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton?  

Sure, the duo’s weekly tutorials with Polish political philosopher Zbigniew Pełczyński, a Warsaw Uprising veteran, took place two decades apart, but the message from the professor’s side of the desk altered little in the intervening years. Pełczyński was an old-school liberal capitalist, who believed in people working together regardless of underlying ideology, and he did what he could to introduce young Poles, and others from Eastern Europe, to free market and democratic principles during the latter days of Communism in Poland.

The point is that neither man was listening — not really. Their minds were already turning to what their next step should be. Clinton no doubt thought he needed no schooling in such precepts. Orbán, on the other hand — despite rising through the party ranks and considering himself to have been a “naive and devoted supporter” of the Communist regime — was already committed to a total clear-out of old thinking and had no time for compromise.

Ambition plays a key role in education, not least for those who choose politics as the intended way ahead. And Orbán and Clinton are just two among 53 current world leaders who spent time at British universities. Only the U.S., with 54, has a higher tally.   

But do these students who frequently cross whole continents to take up their allotted places, go for the quality of the education or the chance, in America’s case, to become familiar with the world’s number one economic and military power? Or might it simply be that English is the worldwide lingua franca?  

Newly published by the Oxford-based Higher Education Policy Institute, the 2023 Soft Power Index lists 13 hereditary rulers who have studied in the United Kingdom, ranging from the Emperor of Japan through the kings, queens and princes of Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Jordan, Bahrain, Monaco, Lesotho and Tonga to various Gulf sultans, emirs and sheikhs.  

Prominent among the remaining 40 names — mere presidents and prime ministers — are the leaders of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Switzerland, Cyprus, Malta, Bolivia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Cameroon, Ghana, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Barbados, the Philippines and Singapore.   

Not all completed their studies at these institutions as varied as Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and the universities of Manchester, Warwick and Southampton. Some, like Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, returned home after only a few months. Others, however, stayed the course, notable among them David Francis — the former chief minister and now foreign minister of Sierra Leone — who, having received his doctorate, became director of the Africa Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Bradford.     

Pakistan’s Imran Khan — an alumnus of Keble College, Oxford — would have also featured prominently on the British list had he not, in keeping with tradition, been ousted in 2022, after being charged with corruption. Though Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who studied ophthalmology at London’s Western Eye Hospital, remains at the helm in war-torn Damascus, supported by Russian arms.  

Meanwhile, the U.S. has narrowly outpaced the U.K. on the index in recent years, but it will surely come as no surprise that more elected leaders and fewer royals are on the American list. Among the exceptions are King Felipe VI of Spain, who obtained a master’s in international relations from Georgetown University, where he was roommates with his cousin, Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece.  

King Philippe of Belgium is another example, as he picked up a master’s in political science at Stanford University, while Monaco’s Prince Albert, son of 1950s movie star Grace Kelly, rounded off four years of study at Amherst College with the proud boast that he spoke not only French, German and Italian but “American” English.  

Among the elected leaders with U.S. provenance, the best known is undoubtedly Benjamin Netanyahu — Israel’s seemingly forever prime minister — who holds a bachelor’s in architecture and a master’s in business administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, like Prince Albert of Monaco, speaks English with a distinct American twang.   

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a bachelor’s in architecture and a master’s in business administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Others, in no particular order, include Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, who studied law at Cornell; Costa Rican President Rodrigo Chavez Robles, who read economics and agriculture at Ohio State; former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who was one of the best among his MBA cohort at Harvard; former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, an Amherst graduate in politics and economics; and Georgian leader Salome Zourabichvili who topped off a brilliant career at Paris’s Sciences Po with a second master’s from Columbia, supervised by Zbigniew Brzezinski.   

In trophy terms, Britain is still managing to keep its nose in front though — if only just. There seems to be some chemistry at work here, as much to do with class and tradition as academic opportunity, which makes up for the country’s relative decline as a global influencer. What really counts, however — and will surely reveal itself in the years ahead — is the extent to which the two “Anglo-Saxon” models remain far ahead of the pursuing pack.   

Currently, France comes in third, with 30 serving leaders on its college roster (down from 40 in 2019). Meanwhile, Russia, 18 months on from its invasion of Ukraine, languishes in fourth place, with an overseas quotient of 10.   

Of course, with five times the population of the U.K. and the world’s biggest, most productive economy, the U.S. is bound to exert the greatest gravitational pull. What emerges from the survey is that, pound for pound (and dollar for dollar), Britain is continuing to punch above its weight.  

But is there really any correlation between an elite Western education and future good governance, or even support for the ideal of representative democracy? The experiences of Africa and the Middle East over the past five decades aren’t inspiring — Assad being a case in point.   

It might also be wondered why leaders who spent time in America and England frequently demonstrate no enduring affection for, or much loyalty toward, either country.  

Orbán was among those for whom Oxford’s dreaming spires were no more than a passing moment. He loved the “electrifying dance” of ideas in the U.K., still under the spell of Margaret Thatcher at the time. But the Berlin Wall was about to come down, and he said to himself, “Viktor, what are you doing here?”   

Clinton was another who chose not to overstay his welcome. He arrived in Oxford in 1968 to read PPE (politics, philosophy and economics), but dithered over his choice of subject and left the following year without a degree to study law at Yale, back in the U.S. Though he much enjoyed his time in England, Clinton found it to be obsessed with class, burdened with outmoded traditions and, worst of all, frivolous — the latter being an odd complaint given his own frivolity in the Oval Office. He also complained about the dampness of his college rooms and the poor plumbing.   

Meanwhile, with today’s shifting demographics, it is also impossible to know just how many future Chinese and Indian leaders will have benefited from time spent abroad. Out of a foreign student body of 680,000, some 152,000 Chinese and 127,000 Indian nationals are currently enrolled at U.K. universities, along with nearly 45,000 Nigerians and 120,000 citizens of European Union member countries.  

In the U.S., 317,000 Chinese and 168,000 Indian nationals make up half of an overall international tally of 950,000. But of the other countries of origin, none — with the exception of South Korea — have sent more than 25,000 students, with very few from Africa outside of Nigeria, and just 40,000 from all of Latin America.   

Furthermore, as we move toward the second quadrant of the 21st century, there looks to be no love lost between China on the one side and the U.S. and Britain on the other. At the same time, India has adopted a Janus-like stance, switching its gaze between the West and its BRICS alliance, which includes Putin’s Russia. And Africa, having shrugged off its colonial links, inclines increasingly toward Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, while the Gulf states, awash with cash, are busy feathering their own nests.  

Over the last 25 years, universities have also become big business — practically an industry unto themselves. The U.K.’s yearly income from foreign students is now valued at £14 billion ($17.6 billion) — more than the £13 billion annual cost of the country’s EU membership prior to Brexit. And the corresponding figure for America is $38 billion — eight times the most recent gross profit of the Boeing Corporation and $12 billion more than that of Coca-Cola.  

And all the while, in Britain, the thousands who failed to win a place at university this year will be asking themselves what they have to do to compete with this ever-rising foreign tide.

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