Soft Power, Higher Education, and Economic Warfare

by Kevin D. Freeman on May 7, 2017

There are many means of warfare although our nation seems intent on ignoring most of them. It wasn’t always so but sadly, as the Chinese observed in their seminal book, Unrestricted Warfare, “Americans have become slaves to technology in their thinking.” What this means is that a vast majority of our time and attention is devoted to building better and more destructive bombs and missiles. We have, to a large extent, ignored non-lethal forms of warfare where we could be making a global case for our culture and way of life. Equally sad is the fact that we have been willfully blind to weapons being waged against us. This has been true even at the highest levels inside our government.

We have discussed at length the risks and challenges we face with our financial markets, Internet, and even Hollywood. One often overlooked area of serious concern is our educational institutions. This covers the gamut from elementary school curriculum to our major Universities. The concept of Academic Freedom has been co-opted by political correctness as well as political infiltration. This is not, however, the natural result of a shifting culture. It is in part purposed and well-funded, taking advantage of our very freedoms to undermine our future. This is provable factually but it is also intuitively recognizable if we are willing to admit it.

The late, great Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller once famously said:

“I don’t think anybody anywhere can talk about the future of their people or of an organization without talking about education. Whoever controls the education of our children controls our future.”
Wilma Mankiller

If this were true (and it is of course), why wouldn’t adversaries attempt to infiltrate the education systems of others? We know and admit there is a cultural battle for education within our nation. Whether it’s a fight over standards (common core) or focus (gender studies vs. traditional values), there is a battle for the soul of our future. In a free society, we are open to such competing differences although we definitely want America to make truly informed decisions. There is another battle underway between control by the State and parental rights. This one is a bit trickier because the government is expected to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” When the government usurps parental rights for its own ends, can it truly be for the people? Adolf Hitler understood the need to divide students from parents. We are seeing similar efforts underway today and that is ominous.

The third battle, and one that is little discussed and too often ignored, is where external adversaries manipulate our education system for their purposes. This is an exercise of soft power. In many ways, it is an effort of Economic Warfare.

There are so many places we could start in our discussion. We could talk about KGB infiltration in the Cold War or NAZI efforts prior to World War II. We could discuss the anti-Israel movements and BDS efforts that are popping up on campuses. We could look at the potential threats of the Gulen School movement. We could discuss how the name of Jesus is used only as an expletive on campuses of once Christian universities where worship of rocks and trees is now encouraged. Safe spaces have replaced academic challenge, making schools more day care than University.

The symptoms of a degraded academy are obvious. There are the rare exceptions such as Oklahoma Wesleyan University, Hillsdale College, Grove City, Patrick Henry College, Colorado Christian, Houston Baptist and a few others that maintain high principles and high standards. But it seems that the majority of colleges and universities have succumbed either to radical political correctness or outright infiltration.

One of the more glaring examples of infiltration, according to a recently released study, may be the Confucius Institutes on over 100 campuses. A new report, from the National Association of Scholars (NAS), outlines an influence operation that seems quite audacious.

Before being accused of conspiracy theory, it is important to understand the historical context. No one argues today against the idea of NAZI infiltration prior to World War II. In fact, noted academics have uncovered incontrovertible evidence that this did happen at varying degrees across higher education. Dr. Stephen H. Norwood, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma wrote extensively on this topic in of The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses. Inside Higher Education did a story on his book when it was released in 2009 and provided a nice summary:

“In order to understand the whole course of development that leads us to the Holocaust, I think it’s very important to see what influential sectors in the United States were doing. And in the case of higher education, it’s a very shameful record of complicity and indifference to atrocities committed against the Jews from 1933 onward — and actually a lot of collaboration, in terms of participating in well-organized student exchange programs, participating in well-orchestrated Nazi festivals in Germany, sending delegates to those and ignoring protests,” says Stephen H. Norwood….

While much of the book details failures of university leadership, one chapter, called Nazi Nests, focuses on the faculty — specifically those of German programs. “University German departments, often staffed by faculty members sympathetic to the Hitler regime, and the German clubs they sponsored, constituted important bases of support for Nazi Germany in the United States,” writes Norwood. German departments at the Universities of Minnesota and Wisconsin hosted receptions for Hans Luther, Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the United States, and German faculty members were prominently represented at anniversary celebrations for the Universities of Heidelberg and Goettingen, in 1936 and 1937, respectively.

The chapter also traces the termination of the single anti-Nazi German faculty member at the New Jersey College for Women (now Douglass Residential College, a part of Rutgers University), as illustrative: “The issues involved in [Lienhard] Bergel’s termination are complicated,” Norwood acknowledges, “but what is most alarming about the case is the administration’s indifference to having an all-Nazi German department at NJC, and the Rutgers’ trustees’ obvious hostility to committed opponents of Nazism.”

Another chapter throws an unflattering spotlight on the University of Virginia’s Institute of Public Affairs’ roundtables, which, from 1933 to 1941, “provided a major platform and an aura of academic legitimacy for Nazi Germany’s supporters and for the propagation of antisemitism,” Norwood argues. Charged with presenting “both sides of questions,” Virginia’s administration worked closely with Nazi Germany’s embassy in Washington to find speakers, and, Norwood writes, they “accorded great respect to the Nazi spokespersons, some of whom the U.S. government later arrested as seditionists, as unregistered German agents, or for disseminating Nazi propaganda.”

Meanwhile, Norwood criticizes American Catholic universities for keeping up friendly relations with Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government, and also for their support of the Fascist General Francisco Franco in Spain (“Catholic leaders in the United States and Europe considered Franco’s war against the democratically elected Loyalists a religious crusade against Communism,” Norwood writes). Norwood writes about the firing of Moyer Springer Fleisher, a bacteriology professor at Saint Louis University, for sponsoring a pro-Loyalist lecture.

It’s Norwood’s research on Harvard and Columbia, however, that — at least to date — has been most high profile. Norwood writes, among other things, of then-Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler’s “warm” reception of the German ambassador, Luther, describing him in 1933 as “the official diplomatic representative to the Government of the United States on the part of the government of a friendly people.” The university dismissed a Jewish instructor of art history, Jerome Klein, who signed a protest against the invitation to Luther, and also expelled a student, Robert Burke, who had protested the university’s decision to send a delegate to the University of Heidelberg’s 550th anniversary celebration, in 1936.

Columbia released a statement on Norwood’s research in 2006 that the university spokesman, Robert Hornsby, said still stands. “It is true, as Professor Norwood claims, that an official of the German government spoke on the Columbia campus in 1933 and that the University sent a representative to the University of Heidelberg in 1936 to attend the celebration of its 550th anniversary.

“In retrospect, one might wish that no one who believed in democratic values would have had any connection with Germany after Hitler’s accession to power. But in fact, American interactions with Nazi Germany – financial, commercial, cultural, academic, and political — were extensive throughout the 1930s and even into the first months of World War II. If the events that Professor Norwood describes are examples of ‘collaboration,’ then the collaborators include many thousands of leaders and citizens of the United States, Britain, and many other nations,” the statement reads, in part.

Stop for a moment and let that sink in. German Studies programs were used as means of infiltration by NAZIs into American academic life. Now, in that context, consider the Preface from the recently released NAS report (written by NAS President Peter Wood):

“Confucius Institutes” are a project by the Chinese government to shape American attitudes towards that nation’s Communist government. The Institutes are housed at American colleges and universities, and there are currently more than one hundred of them. The name “Confucius Institute,” like almost everything else about the initiative, is misleading. Confucius Institutes have nothing to do with the ancient Chinese sage. They are ostensibly centers for teaching American students Chinese language and puff courses on Chinese arts. In reality, they are instruments of what Harvard University professor Joseph Nye calls “soft power.” That is, they attempt to persuade people towards a compliant attitude, rather than coerce conformity.

But even this is not quite exactly right. Confucius Institutes don’t overtly force their views on Americans, but behind the appearance of a friendly and inviting form of diplomacy lies a grim authoritarian reality. The Confucius Institutes are tightly managed from China by an agency of the government. They are staffed by Chinese nationals on short-term contracts. Their relations with their American hosts are governed by secret agreements enforced in Chinese courts under Chinese law. And many students from China studying in the U.S as well as faculty members believe the Institutes are centers of surveillance. There is no positive proof that the Institutes are also centers for Chinese espionage against the United States, but virtually every independent observer who has looked into them believes that to be the case.

The study that follows says nothing about that speculation, but not for lack of testimony. The author, Rachelle Peterson, spoke to numerous individuals who demanded total anonymity as the condition for saying anything. Their stories go unreported here because the body of this report presents only verifiable facts. In this preface, however, I am granting myself license to go beyond what we can fully verify. That’s because the off-the-record stories we collected were consistent in their portrayal of the Confucius Institutes as centers of threats and intimidation directed at Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans, and as cover for covert activities on the part of the Chinese government.

Possibly this is a collective illusion harbored by Chinese nationals and by Americans who hold hostile views of the Chinese Communist government. We cannot with certainty say whether the accusations are warranted. But it would be a failure on our part if we did not report the allegations, which form a forest of suspicion surrounding the castle of Confucius Institutes. A major question that hangs over this report is why American colleges and universities lend themselves to serving as hosts for the Confucius Institutes. Are they unaware of the unsavory reputation of these instruments of “soft power” in the hands of one of America’s international adversaries? Are they naïve about the appearance of putting the credibility of their institutions at risk by making them subject to the whims of a foreign government that summarily rejects the freedom of expression and open inquiry that are bedrock principles of American higher education? Are they indifferent to the possible abuse of the rights of the Chinese students studying in the United States?

They are definitely not unaware of the unsavory reputation of Confucius Institutes. Within the world of American higher education, word has spread, and no college president could entertain an offer from the Hanban (the Chinese government body that orchestrates this effort) without finding out about the controversies that swirl around the Institutes.

The unfortunate answer to the other two questions is yes. The American colleges and universities that sign up are naïve, and they are generally indifferent to the consequences. What motivates the college administrators who accept these invitations is a combination of greed and vanity. The Hanban knows exactly how to play the contemporary American college president and his staff.

As Rachelle Peterson explains in the pages that follow, Confucius Institutes pay their way. Typically they enter into five-year contracts in which they pay their host universities a substantial annual fee. And they provide services, such as Chinese language instruction, that the host university need not pay for. It seldom stops there. The officials of the host university are invited to junkets in China where they lecture and are feted. And the Hanban supplies Chinese officials who hold impressive titles to speak at events on the American campuses.

The beribboned accolades go surprisingly far in turning the heads of American college presidents, but that isn’t all there is to the Chinese soft-power strategy behind the Confucius Institutes. The Chinese government fully realizes the vulnerability of American colleges and universities that lies in their financial dependence on tuition. China can turn on the tap to full-tuition paying Chinese students, turn it down, or shut it off. A college or university that becomes dependent on this flow of international students is loath to offend the Chinese government. China is now by far the largest source of international students in the U.S., comprising 31 percent of the total. In 2015, there were some 328,000 Chinese students studying in American universities.

Vulnerability to China’s control of the flow of students to the U.S. is one thing. The opportunity for American colleges and universities to their own open programs in China is another. This prospect is regularly dangled in front of American college and university presidents, and with it comes both a potentially large new income stream and international prestige.

Forfeiting a bit of academic integrity to attain such rewards must seem to many college presidents a small price to pay. Or if not “many” college presidents, at least the hundred or so who have said yes to the offer to have a Confucius Institute on campus.

There is much more to this story, but I will leave it for Rachelle to tell. She is the intrepid researcher who has ventured forth on a series of NAS projects that have taken her into counsels of groups that are not naturally friendly to the National Association of Scholars. Rachelle was the lead researcher and first author of Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism (2015); researcher and author of Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels (2015); and our observer at a Black Lives Matter training seminar. Studying Confucius Institutes proved even harder than these previous assignments. It became clear that the Chinese government did not at all welcome our attention.

A last few words of prefatory caution. We limit ourselves in the body of this report to what we know for sure. There are no smoking guns. There is instead a scrupulously clean room and a cast of very polite people who have hardly anything to say beyond banalities. Rachelle describes this eerie scene in exact detail and without shading. The reader is free to take all this at face value, in which case the report will supply only a minimalist description of décor. All nations, after all, attempt to put their best foot forward with both friends and rivals. There is no harm in that, and it is possible that Confucius Institutes are best seen as the equivalent of the Alliance Française, the Goethe-Institut, the British Council, the Instituto Cervantes, or the Società Dante Alighieri. You must be the judge of that.

We cannot do justice to the depth and issues raised in the 186-page report. You can download it HERE and read it for yourself. If you’d like a shorter summary that captures the essence, consider this great article by our friend Dr. Christopher Hull at Daily Caller.

Of course, we cannot directly compare the German intentions pre-World War II to those of Communist China today. We have the benefit of hindsight with regard to the NAZIs but the final chapter is not yet written on Sino-American relations. But we can share that many of the same techniques used some 80 years ago to sway American universities appear to be at work today.

Why Is This Significant?

Besides the obvious cultural and political influence, there is an absolute and direct economic impact. Higher education is not only the connection to our future as a nation, but also the source of one of our greatest debts (literally). Student loans have exploded since the government took over the Student Loan program in 2010 as shown in the chart from the Federal Reserve (FRED). As of now, student loans are by far our nation’s largest consumer liability and our government’s greatest financial asset (almost one-third of all Federal financial assets).

[Sadly, while we saddle American citizens with serious debt despite taxpayer subsidies, at least one school has chosen to give a free ride to undocumented immigrants (aka “illegal aliens”).]

Parents have leveraged their future with all the student loans, threatening their retirement (which is already threatened by a coming pension crisis). But what have they bought? Sadly, the education given has promoted anti-Americanism, a distaste for Western civilization, and a hatred of capitalism. Even sadder, many of the opinions are so misinformed as to be laughable. And the efforts are so out in the open. We can’t blame this on China but we can state that we are not getting all the benefits we should from our expenditures.

Another very serious risk is that America’s major colleges and universities have a direct pipeline into government and corporate intelligence. Those who have infiltrated the research academy may gain access to America’s top secrets.

All of this is to say that as a nation we have made an enormous investment into higher education with its own economic ramifications (which we will cover in a later post). Beyond loans, our higher academic institutions are the source of enormous potential innovation and cultural influence. But are we getting what we are paying for? And, can we afford to overlook a potentially serious infiltration?

Here is the amazing thing. If our own Federal Government, which funded higher education to the tune of $76 billion in 2013 (not counting loans), were to demand the kind of concessions from colleges and universities that the Confucius Institutes do, there would be an uproar about denying academic freedom. But when it was NAZIs, the money talked. Are we witnessing a repeat of history? The implications are enormous, both to our economy and to our nation’s security.

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