Language is Key to Soft Power

"To be able to dream and work together, more Americans must be able to speak Chinese," said Under Secretary McHale (yesfoto/istockphoto)

"To be able to dream and work together, more Americans must be able to speak Chinese," said Under Secretary McHale (yesfoto/istockphoto)

WASHINGTON, April 22, 2010 - "Power is not a zero-sum game," said U.S. Under Secretary of State Judith McHale. "There's no reason to assume that a rising China poses a threat to the United States or that China's emergence represents a diminution of American leadership."

In fact, McHale argues, US-China ties should be viewed as an opportunity, not a threat. The best way to grasp that opportunity? People-to-people connections.

Although rarely in history have two nations of such dissimilar backgrounds have been obligated to work together on such a broad spectrum of issues, McHale argues that foreign relations today is luckily not left to government diplomats alone. "Smart power," a phrase borrowed from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, refers to a deeply rooted collaborations throughout all sectors of society. When the exchange of ideas and working relationships among educators, scientists, authors, and businesses--just to name a few--are fruitful, then nations can better withstand the ups-and-downs of government relationships.

The State Department has set up several programs to expand people-to-people ties and to promote Chinese language and cultural studies. McHale reports that the State Department supports more students to study in China than any other country in the world. The Department's program currently funds high school through graduate-level students, and is planning on expanding exchanges down to the elementary school level. It also supports teacher exchanges and related educational programs.

The State Department also helps institutions with new programs--including the establishment of relationships with Chinese counterparts, with private-sector funders, and with other institutions.

"To be able to dream and work together, more Americans must speak Chinese and know the Chinese people. More Chinese must speak English and have personal relationships with Americans. We must broaden and deepen the circle of citizens in both countries personally involved in each others' lives.

"The future belongs to those individuals and countries that open to the world and equip themselves with the skills and mindsets that the world demands of them. Paramount among these skills are fluency in a foreign language and understanding of other cultures. The security and prosperity of the two nations, and indeed, the world, will depend on the extent to which the two find common ground," says McHale.

Judith McHale is the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.