The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Say you’re leading a country. Does having a Western education matter?

(AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)
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When Western-educated leaders take power in developing countries, do they launch democratic reforms? This question regularly consumes policymakers and political pundits.

For instance, the debate was reignited when Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Nayef—who studied political science at Lewis and Clark College—was appointed heir apparent to the Saudi throne. Reporters Ben Hubbard and David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times appeared optimistic, writing, “Because of his Western education, Prince Mohammed is believed to favor liberalization on matters like education and opportunities for women.” By contrast, Brian Dooley of Human Rights First wrote pessimistically in Al Jazeera America, “There’s no reason to believe that a Western-educated leader will be more democratic or reformist.”

The stakes in this debate are high. Whether Western-educated leaders are linked to democracy has direct implications for U.S. foreign policy.

A slew of State Department programs—including the International Visitor Leadership Program, the Leaders for Democracy Fellowship Program, and the Fulbright Program—all aim to advance political reform abroad through cross-cultural academic exchange. Moreover, some of the West’s top universities have initiatives—such as Yale’s World Fellows Program, Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance, and Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government—designed to prepare future generations of global democratic leaders.

Does any of this matter?

A quick glance at the historical record shows that you could cherry-pick examples that support whichever conclusion you want to reach. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was lauded for her reform efforts, praised her experience at Harvard for cultivating “the very basis of [her] belief in democracy.” At the other pole is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a notorious dictator, who received part of his medical training in the United Kingdom. Given the current catastrophe in Syria, it is easy to forget that Assad was initially heralded as a political reformer, with some observers even predicting a “Damascus Spring” after his rise to power in 2000.

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, we look at this question more systematically.

Methodology of our study

We collected original data on where more than 500 leaders from the developing world attended college or university. To be more specific, we examined the educational backgrounds of leaders from non-OECD countries who had held power for at least three years. Using this data, we then coded whether leaders received post-secondary education in the West.

Obviously, “Western” is itself a contested concept. Therefore, we used two separate measures of the term. Our primary definition codes a leader as Western-educated if he or she studied in the United States or the United Kingdom. Our alternative definition broadens this criterion to include leaders who studied in North America or Western Europe.

We then looked at whether these leaders democratized while they were in power. We measured democracy in two ways. In one set of results, we examined whether leaders presided over a full transition from autocracy to democracy. In another group of tests, we investigated how much each country’s democratic “score” (measured by a widely used index) changed under each leader.

The result: yes, Western-educated leaders are more likely to democratize

Here’s what we found: Leaders with a Western education do in fact launch democratic reforms more than other leaders. That’s true no matter how we measured democratization or Western education.

In fact, the difference was a big one. A Western-educated leader was about four times more likely to preside over a democratic transition than another leader who inherited a similar political situation.

Correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, but…

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Western-education leader caused the democratic transition. Maybe countries that are ready to reform are also more likely to choose Western-educated leaders.

We checked this out by examining what happens when a Western-educated leader takes power after someone died in office from natural causes. In those cases, the transfer of power isn’t happening because the country is ready for reform; the timing is random.

Even then, Western-educated leaders are more likely to preside over democratic reforms.

What’s the takeaway?

Here it is: Educational exchanges between the West and developing countries are worthwhile. From inside the Beltway to the Ivy League and beyond, policymakers and academics should strengthen and expand efforts to expose future world leaders to Western democratic ideals.

In fact, bringing elites from the developing world to the West for education might be an especially cost-effective way to spread democracy—especially compared to the high human and financial cost of trying to do so through military force. Consider that the Iraq war has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard’s Linda Bilmes, cost $3 trillion.  While a long-term enterprise, educational exchange appears to be worth the investment today.

Daniel Krcmaric is an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University. Thomas Gift is a postdoctoral fellow at the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School.