With policy makers, education leaders and scholars toeing the soft power line, you have multiple developments surfacing in recent years. Propounded by political scientist Joseph Nyne, this concept constitutes the ability to convince others into attaining nationally motivated self-interests, whether the benefits are economic, political, reputation-centric or gross competitiveness. Persuasion and attraction substitutes coercion, economic sanctions or military force, which are commonly called hard power. The opulence of academic journals, conferences, media articles or blogs in recent times bears ample testimony to the international higher education support. While some sections regard it as basic premise of modern education management, you have others who term it as a new branding campaign, which fused media with culture to draw foreign denizens, especially students. Auxiliary interpretations call it neo-colonization.

There are some who view its key features as means to create trust since it does reap dividends like geo-political or economic superlatives. Concisely, the usage or role soft power entails myriad interpretations. Since the fundamental attribute of power is to gain some form of dominance, the real question is whether the soft power element hegemony in the garb of alluring, new clothes. The tussle between mutual and self interests takes center stage here. The most common examples of the context are the British Council, Fullbright Program, and German academic Exchange Service, Erasmus Mundus, Confucius Institutes and numerous Development projects.

Clearly, these are long-standing projects, which have made huge contributions. But calling them tools of soft power while they foster student exchange, faculty, expertise, knowledge or science remains questionable. There is an apparatus of self-interests, mutuality of benefits and interests working here. The higher education panorama is characterized by bi-national universities, international research collaborations, global military projects, multi-national policy framework, international academic hubs and regional headquarters of educational excellence. The common perception is that in today’s highly interdependent and interconnected world, higher education is a platform for cross-border exchange or fluidity of people, values, technology, culture, innovation and awareness.

It remains to be seen if competition, dominance or self-interest is going to address factors like failed states, terrorism, epidemics, large-scale poverty or climate change. The plausible and prospective answer is NO.  Still, it is naïve to overlook this issue as the gamut of international relations is compound, complex and replete with ceaseless challenges, fluctuating accords, discrepancies and history. The primary challenge lies in endorsing the soft power concept or introducing an alternative approach, which is the mutual power idea. It elucidates that power need not be a zero-sum plaything. This approach thrives on the individual strength of countries’ research organizations higher education to yield long-term solutions for every player. The benefits are bound to vary because the notion integrates ‘new normal’ reality that finding solutions for global challenges cannot be attained by a country alone. Diplomacy is a viable alternative to this power paradigm since it holds negotiation as its fulcrum. You have a plethora of new actors, which include transnational companies, non-governmental bodies, track II diplomats and professional associations. Higher education constitutes a key component of contemporary diplomacy.

Cultural or public diplomacy includes social, traditional and modern art forms, language, architecture and intercultural training, sports and cybernetic instruments. These influence a country’s foreign policies and are precisely why international relations have become so layered these days. The feasibility of higher education becoming an instrument for international engagement within the process of an expanded connotation of diplomacy is the main directive in this juncture.