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Global Viewpoint

Science, not Hollywood or Starbucks, is America's best soft power

The US should pursue science diplomacy with Muslim-majority countries, which would complement efforts to promote human rights.

By Ahmed Zewail / June 28, 2010



Pasadena, Calif.

In today’s world, America’s soft power is commonly thought to reside in the global popularity of Hollywood movies, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Starbucks. But the facts tell a different story.

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In a recent poll involving 43 countries, 79 percent of those surveyed said that what they most admire about the United States is its leadership in science and technology. The artifacts of the American entertainment industry came in a distant second. What I, as a young foreign student in the 1970s, found most dynamic, exciting, and impressive about the US is what much of the world continues to value most about America today: its open intellectual culture, its great universities, its capacity for discovery and innovation.

By harnessing the soft power of science in the service of diplomacy, America can demonstrate its desire to bring the best of its culture and heritage to bear on building better and broader relations with the Muslim world and beyond.

I felt the full force of this soft power when I came to the US in 1969 to begin graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. I discovered how science is truly a universal language, one that forges new connections among individuals and opens the mind to ideas that go far beyond the classroom. My education in America instilled in me greater appreciation for the value of scholarly discourse and the use of the scientific method in dealing with complex issues. It sowed, then nurtured, new seeds of political and cultural tolerance.

But perhaps most significant was that I came to appreciate the extent to which science embodies the core values of what the American Founders called “the rights of man” as set forth in the US Constitution: freedom of thought and speech, which are essential to creative advancement in the sciences; and the commitment to equality of opportunity, because scientific achievement is blind to ethnicity, race, or cultural background.

In January, appointed by President Obama as America’s first science envoy to the Middle East, I embarked on a diplomatic tour that took me to Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar. I met with officials from all levels of government and the educational system in these countries, as well as with economists, industrialists, writers, publishers, and media representatives. What I learned during these visits was cause for some alarm, but also for considerable optimism.

The alarming aspect comes from the fact that education in many Muslim-majority countries now seriously lags behind international standards. Deficiencies in education, together with widespread economic hardship and the lack of job opportunities for young people, are sources of frustration and despair in many Muslim societies. They are rooted largely in poor governance and growing corruption, compounded by overpopulation and by movement away from the enlightened education I was fortunate enough to enjoy in Egypt in the 1960s.

Yet there are many positive signs as well. Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, and Qatar are making significant strides in education and in technical and economic development. Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, and Indonesia are examples of countries still rich with youthful talents. Nor is this transfer of wealth and learning flowing exclusively from the West to the East. Today there are many Muslims in the West who have excelled in all fields of endeavor, from science, technology, and business to arts and the media. These accomplishments and the values they represent can help the Muslim world recover its venerable heritage as a leader in science by complementing local efforts and aspirations.

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