The Alma Mater effect: The influence of a foreign education on political leaders' foreign policy

Axel Dreher, Shu Yu

25 November 2016



Governments and citizens generally assume that opening education to foreign students creates important benefits for the host country. Research backs this assumption: a substantial proportion of foreign students permanently stay in the country in which they study, creating an inflow of high-skilled labour (Dreher and Poutvaara 2011).

There may also be a mutual benefit from a transfer of values from host to country of origin. Students who return from democratic countries spread the democratic values they acquired while studying (Spilimbergo 2009). Docquier et al. (2011) find a positive effect of emigration on the quality of political institutions in the emigrants’ country of origin in a large sample of developing countries.

This belief that foreign education can spread the host country’s values and policy preferences through the education of future political and economic leaders has inspired foreign-education programmes like the Fulbright Program, the International Lenin School, Yale’s World Fellows Program, Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance, and Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. All these programmes target the next generation of global leaders, partly to improve diplomatic relations between the home and host countries. The US Department of Education (2012) explicitly pursues “active education diplomacy” to “[a]dvance US international priorities in strategically important countries”. Colonial powers such as the UK and France used to select promising young elites to study in their institutes to cultivate them to be future governors. Examples include Cameroon’s Paul Biya, the Republic of Congo’s Marien Ngouabi, and Ghana’s Hilla Limann.

Not every foreign-educated leader later supports its host’s diplomatic ambitions, of course. Consider China’s leader over the 1978-1992 period, Deng Xiaoping. Deng was selected by the Chinese Communist Party to study at Moscow Sun Yat-sen University, where he spent more than a year. Subsequently, Deng did little to improve China's relationship with the Soviet Union (Marti 2002).

In a recent paper, we argue that two opposing forces shape the foreign policy of leaders who once studied in another country, which we call ‘affinity’ and ‘allegiance’ (Dreher and Yu 2016). Affinity is pre-existing or developed while studying abroad, and makes foreign-educated leaders more likely to support their (former) host country. But foreign-educated leaders also need to demonstrate allegiance to the population of the country they govern. This shows that their policies are designed to favour their own country, rather than the country in which they once studied. The net effect of foreign education on diplomatic relations between the leaders’ home and host is thus ambiguous.

Ideas, values, and interests will crucially influence students’ decisions of where to study. We can assume that leaders who choose to study in a country share that country’s values, and so would be more likely to hold a similar stance on foreign policy compared to leaders who had studied elsewhere. Therefore, it is intuitive that leaders who have studied in a foreign country are more likely to have some affinity to their host, compared to other leaders.

For any given value system, a student holds upon arrival in a host country, we expect the prolonged presence in a country to shape the student’s character, ideas, and interests – and thus future foreign policy. Spilimbergo (2009) as well as Gift and Krcmaric (2015) argue that Western education instils a sense of common identity with the international democratic community. Spilimbergo writes: “[F]oreign educated leaders seem to be extremely motivated to keep up with the more developed countries where they studied.”

Allegiance is subtler. Consider Taiwan’s Ma Yingjeo. During Taiwan’s 2008 presidential election, voters questioned Ma’s allegiance to Taiwan, given his possession of a US permanent residence (green) card. Another example is Malawi’s 2014 presidential election, in which there was a public debate on whether someone holding a green card should be allowed to participate in the election. The Huffington Post (2015) wrote of US Senator John Kerry:

When he was running as the Democratic presidential challenger... aides to then Massachusetts Senator John Kerry were concerned that their candidate, who attended a Swiss boarding school as a child, learned to speak fluent French, and who spent summers at his family’s estate in the coastal region of Brittany would be seen by American voters as the so-called European Candidate, or, (God forbid!) as a bit too French.”

Just as the authorities that set up foreign education programs expect former students to be more favourable towards their foreign policy, the leaders’ domestic populations might worry they are too sympathetic to the foreign power. Therefore we argue that leaders with foreign education need to demonstrate allegiance to their own country more than leaders who have not studied abroad, so as to consolidate their popularity and stay in office.

In our paper, we gather data on the educational background of 831 leaders, and investigate voting patterns in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) between 1975 and 2011 as a proxy for foreign policy. Figure 1 shows that the US is the most common destination of foreign education, as 15% of the leaders in our sample studied there. The UK is the next most common, then France. G7-educated leaders are densely concentrated in Africa and former colonies. This is partially due to colonial ties and the comparatively poorer education systems in those countries.

Figure 1 The percentage of leaders in sample receiving some education in a G7 country

Our results show that, on average, foreign-educated leaders are less friendly with their host countries, but more friendly with countries that broadly share the host country’s cultural and political goals compared to leaders without foreign education. We interpret this as evidence for the relative roles of affinity and allegiance.

Studying abroad has shaped the leader’ values and beliefs, and so shifts their foreign policy.

At the same time, leaders need to show some distance from the country in which they studied to demonstrate allegiance. This behaviour is particularly pronounced at election time, when the signal is arguably most important for the leaders to survive in power.

Our results have important implications for educational policy and international relations. While educating future leaders indeed fosters a certain degree of affinity, this will be less apparent at when leaders face domestic elections. Countries that share culture and foreign policy goals with the host country, but in which a leader has not studied, can profit from affinity but are not tainted by allegiance. They are more likely to benefit from that leader’s foreign education.

We suspect that to alleviate the negative effect of allegiance on diplomatic relations between a leader’s home and host, a larger share of the home country population would need to build affinity, rather than just the leader. Education policies that aim at improving relations between countries would need to focus on populations, rather than leaders.


Docquier, F., E. Lodigiani, H. Rapoport and M. Schiff (2011), Emigration and democracy, Centro Studi Luca d'Agliano Development Studies Working Paper 307.

Dreher, A. and P. Poutvaara (2011), Foreign Students and Migration to the United States, World Development 38, 1294-1307.

Dreher, A. and Shu Yu (2016), The Alma Mater Effect – Does Foreign Education of Political Leaders Influence Foreign Policy? CEPR Discussion Paper No. 11450.

Gift, T. and D. Krcmaric (2015), Who Democratizes? Western-educated Leaders and Regime Transitions, Journal of Conflict Resolution, forthcoming.

Marti, M. (2002), China and the legacy of Deng Xiaoping: From communist revolution to capitalist evolution. Potomac Books.

Spilimbergo, A. (2009), Democracy and Foreign Education, American Economic Review 99, 528-543.

U.S. Department of Education (2012), International Strategy 2012–16, Succeeding Globally Through International Education and Engagement



Topics:  Education Politics and economics

Tags:  diplomacy, international relations, politics, education, affinity, allegiance

Professor of International and Development Politics, Heidelberg University

Economist, Development Economic Prospects Group, World Bank