Commentary: The Year Of Democracy & America’s Role In The World

For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population lives in countries that will hold nationwide elections in 2024. Nearly 2 billion people across more than 70 countries will head to the polls — from India to Iceland and the Netherlands to Namibia. But buried beneath the headlines of the “Year of Democracy” has been America’s role in influencing policies and governance around the world — for the better.

At the end of 2023, there were 86 world leaders who had been educated in the United States or a similar industrialized democracy such as the United Kingdom, France, or Japan — collectively accounting for nearly half of the world’s government leaders, according to a report from MPOWER Financing, a financier of student loans for international students in the U.S. The United States is by far the largest educator of foreign leaders, claiming 42 — from the presidents of Costa Rica and Cyprus to the prime ministers of Singapore and Slovenia.

With their global education and exposure to new cultures, these leaders can serve as bridges between nations and act as a voice for good governance and democratic values, potentially fueling a peace dividend. They’re able to bring back home not just theoretical knowledge but also a practical understanding of governance, civil liberties, democratic ideals, and policy frameworks.


Mauritius and Botswana — recognized by the Economist Intelligence Unit as among the most democratic nations in Africa — will both hold general elections in 2024. In Mauritius, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, who studied law at the University of Buckingham in England before joining Aix-Marseille University in France, will face Leader of the Opposition Xavier-Luc Duval, who studied economics at the University of Leeds in England. In Botswana, President Mokgweetsi Masisi obtained a master’s degree from Florida State University and will face Duma Boko, who studied at Harvard Law School. No matter the winner, their education will be instrumental in shaping their governance styles, policy-making, and international diplomacy.

Indeed, when Kinga Tshering of Bhutan graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School, he formed a new Bhutanese political party called Druk Thuendrel Tshogpa (DTT) to contest Bhutan’s 2023-2024 elections. The DTT’s manifesto, which strives for good governance, social harmony, environmental stewardship, cultural promotion, cutting-edge, technology, and finance, was heavily inspired by coursework at Harvard University, particularly the Kennedy School’s Adaptive Leadership Framework.

The educational experience of these leaders often translates into “soft” diplomacy in favor of the United States — a subtle yet powerful tool in international relations. Being alumni of prestigious global institutions opens doors to a network of global leaders and creates a shared understanding and mutual respect that can be pivotal in diplomatic and trade engagements. A paper for the Center for Growth and Opportunity finds that international education significantly boosts trade between countries by promoting trust between distant nations and cultures. When negotiating trade deals, forming strategic alliances or advocating for global issues like climate change or human rights, these leaders reflect fondly upon their American education and leverage their shared educational experiences to navigate the complex and fraught landscape of international relations.

This has not been lost on less democratic nations. As Wang Huiyao, an advisor to China’s State Council said in 2017, “There are more than 300 world leaders including presidents, prime ministers and ministers around the globe that graduated from U.S. universities, but only a few foreign leaders that graduated from Chinese universities, so we still need to exercise effort to boost academic exchange and educate more political elites from other countries.”

China hosted nearly 500,000 international students before COVID, ranking fourth in the world. While current figures are likely lower due to China’s slow emergence from the pandemic, the nation has still made further moves to attract international students through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. As Wang noted, “China’s efforts to boost academic exchange through providing scholarships among the Belt and Road countries is a significant achievement.”


The U.S. has long flourished from its ability to provide opportunities to bright and hard-working individuals from around the world. Ensuring that this trend continues and making policy changes to strengthen these trends will fuel American dynamism and foster ties with the next generation of foreign leaders.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit to ensure the U.S. retains its advantage as the largest educator of foreign students. First, the U.S. should remedy the high student visa rejection rate for students from African nations by increasing staff and streamlining processes in overburdened overseas consular offices. This would eliminate months-long wait times for visa appointments that turn many students elsewhere. The State Department should also increase training and guidance for improved visa adjudication and address consular posts experiencing high visa decline rates.

The U.S. is already working to address long processing times in India by opening a new consulate in Bengaluru. This should significantly assist in providing visas for Indian students, who are poised to become the largest foreign demographic on American campuses. This new consulate will provide opportunities to all Indian students, one of whom may be a future Indian prime minister.

Foreign students in the U.S. not only acquire valuable opportunities, friendships, and professional connections but also develop enduring goodwill. As other nations vie to become popular destinations for international students, the U.S. possesses a unique chance to introduce potential global leaders to the principles of a free, open, and democratic society. This experience has the potential to transform these individuals into lifelong proponents of democracy and advocates for robust relationships between their home countries and the U.S. After all, this “Year of Democracy” is not just a testament to the power of the vote but a celebration of the enduring influence of education in shaping a world that values peace, diplomacy, and the collective good.

Sasha Ramani is head of Corporate Strategy for MPOWER Financing. 


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