Think Again

Think Again: Arab Democracy

One of the world's foremost experts on democracy building debunks the myths surrounding the Arab world's new governments -- and wonders what sort of role the West should play.

"The Berlin Wall Has Fallen in the Arab World."

Yes and no. It's tempting to compare the astonishing wave of political upheaval in the Arab world to the equally dramatic wave of political change that swept Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. In the Middle East today, as in 1989, extraordinary numbers of ordinary people are courageously and for the most part nonviolently demanding a better future for themselves and their children. The wave broke just as suddenly and was almost entirely unpredicted by experts both inside and outside the region. And the process of cross-country contagion -- the political sparks jumping across borders almost instantaneously -- has also been strikingly reminiscent of Central and Eastern Europe in that fateful year.

Yet the 1989 analogy is misleading in at least two major ways. First, the communist governments of Central and Eastern Europe had been imposed from the outside and maintained in place by the Soviet Union's guarantee -- the very real threat of tanks arriving to put down any serious insurrection. When Soviet power began to crumble in the late 1980s, this guarantee turned paper thin and the regimes were suddenly deeply vulnerable to any hard push from inside.

The situation in the Arab world is very different. For all you hear about America's support for dictators, the Arab autocracies were, or are not, held in place by any external power framework. Rather, they survived these many decades largely by their own means -- in some cases thanks to a certain amount of monarchical legitimacy well watered with oil and in all cases by the heavy hand of deeply entrenched national military and police forces. True, the United States has supplied military and economic assistance in generous quantities to some of the governments and did save Kuwait's ruling Sabah family from Iraqi takeover in 1991. Generally, however, the U.S. role is far less invasive than that of the Soviets in Central and Eastern Europe -- just ask American diplomats if they feel like Saudi Arabia's independent-minded King Abdullah is a U.S. puppet.

What's more, though citizens in some Arab countries have given their governments a hard push, the underlying regimes themselves -- the interlocking systems of political patronage, security forces, and raw physical coercion that political scientists call the "deep state" -- are not giving up the ghost but are hunkering down and trying to hold on. Shedding presidents, as in Tunisia and Egypt, is a startling and significant development, but only partial regime collapse. The entrenched security establishments in those countries are bargaining with the forces of popular discontent, trying to hold on to at least some parts of their privileged role. If the protesters are able to stay mobilized and focus their demands, they may be able to force a step-by-step dismantling of the old order. Elsewhere in the region however, the changes so far are less fundamental.

Second, Middle East regimes are much more diverse than was the case in Central and Eastern Europe. The Arab world contains reformist monarchs, conservative monarchs, autocratic presidents, tribal states, failing states, oil-rich states, and water-poor states -- none of which much resemble the sagging bureaucratic communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. Thus, even if the transition process in one or two Arab states does end up bearing some resemblance to what occurred in Central and Eastern Europe, what takes place elsewhere in the region is likely to differ from it fundamentally. Anyone trying to predict the political future of Libya or Yemen, for example, will not get very far by drawing comparisons to the Poland or Hungary of 20 years ago.


"Middle East Transitions Are More Like Sub-Saharan Africa."

Worth considering. Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 is not the only historical analogy political observers are proffering. Some are citing Iran in 1979; others Europe in 1848. A more telling analogy has not been receiving sufficient attention -- the wave of authoritarian collapse and democratic transition that swept through sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1990s. After more than two decades of stultifying strongman rule in sub-Saharan Africa following decolonization, broad-based but loosely organized popular protests spread across the continent, demanding economic and political reforms. Some autocrats, such as Mathieu Kerekou in Benin, fell relatively quickly. Others, like Daniel arap Moi in Kenya, hung on, promising political liberalization and then reconsolidating their positions. Western governments that had long indulged African dictators suddenly found religion on democracy there, threatening to withhold aid from countries whose leaders refused to hold elections. The number of electoral democracies grew rapidly from just three in 1989 to 18 in 1995, and a continent that most political analysts had assumed would indefinitely be autocratic was replete with democratic experiments by the end of the decade.

Of course, like all such analogies, the comparison to today's Middle East is far from exact. The oil-rich Arab states are much wealthier than any African states were in 1990. The significant presence of monarchical systems in the Arab world has no equivalent in sub-Saharan Africa -- as much as delusional "kings" like Swaziland's Mswati III would have it otherwise. The sociopolitical role of Islam in Arab societies is quite different from the role of Islam or other religions in many sub-Saharan African countries. Yet enough political and economic similarities exist to give the analogy as much or more utility than those of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989, Europe in the mid-19th century, and Iran facing Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers. It would behoove policymakers to quickly study up on the sub-Saharan African experience to understand how and why the different outcomes evident on the subcontinent -- shaky democratic success in some cases (Ghana and Benin), authoritarian reconsolidation in others (Cameroon and Togo), and civil war in still others (Democratic Republic of the Congo) -- took place.

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"Democracy's Long-Term Chances Are Slim."

Don't give up hope. During the heyday of democracy's global spread in the 1980s and 1990s, democracy enthusiasts tended not to pay much attention to the underlying social, economic, and historical conditions in countries attempting democratic transitions. Democracy appeared to be breaking out in the unlikeliest of places, whether Mongolia, Malawi, or Moldova. The burgeoning community of international democracy activists thought that as long as a critical mass of people within a country believed in and pushed for democracy, unfavorable underlying conditions could be overcome.

Two decades later, democracy enthusiasts are chastened. Democracy's "third wave" produced a very mixed set of outcomes around the world. Many once hopeful transitions, from Russia to Rwanda, have fallen badly short. Given these different results, it has become clear that underlying conditions do have a big impact on democratic success. Five are of special importance: 1) the level of economic development; 2) the degree of concentration of sources of national wealth; 3) the coherence and capability of the state; 4) the presence of identity-based divisions, such as along ethnic, religious, tribal, or clan lines; and 5) the amount of historical experience with political pluralism.

Seen in this light, the Arab world presents a daunting picture. Poverty is widespread; where it is not present, oil dominates. Sunni-Shiite divisions are serious in some countries; tribal tensions haunt others. In a few countries, like Libya, the coherence of basic state institutions has long been shockingly low. In much of the region, there is little historical experience with pluralism. A hard road ahead for democracy is almost certain.

Yet within the political and economic diversity of the Arab world lie some grounds for hope. Tunisia's population is well educated and a real middle class exists. Egypt's protests have shown the potential for cross-sectarian cooperation. Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, and Morocco have parliamentary institutions with significant experience in multiparty competition, however attenuated. Additionally, the five factors mentioned above are indicators of likelihood, not preconditions. Their absence only indicates a difficult path, not an impossible one. After all, India failed this five-part test almost completely when it became independent, but has made a good go of democracy. Returning to the analogy of sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s, at least one-third of African states have made genuine democratic progress despite facing far more daunting underlying conditions.

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"Islamists Will Win Big in Free and Fair Elections."

Not necessarily. Many observers watching the events in the Arab world worry that expanding the political choices of Arab citizens will open the floodgates to a cascade of Islamist electoral landslides. They invoke the experience of Islamist victories in Algeria in 1991 and Palestine in 2006 as evidence for their concern.

This fear is overblown. Elections in which Islamists do well grab international attention, but do not represent the norm. Islamist parties have a long history of electoral participation in Muslim countries but usually only gain a small fraction of the vote. In their extensive study of Islamist political participation, published in the April 2010 Journal of Democracy, Charles Kurzman and Ijlal Naqvi find that most Islamist parties win less than 10 percent of the vote in the elections in which they participate.

It is true that after decades of autocracy, secular opposition parties in most Arab societies are weak and Islamists are sometimes the most organized alternative. Yet organization itself does not automatically guarantee electoral success. Given the powerful role of television and the Internet, electoral campaigns have often become as much about mass-media appeal as grassroots work. Especially in new democracies, charismatic candidates leading personalistic organizations and offering vague promises of change sometimes win out over better-organized groups (think President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia). In addition, Islamists may inspire strong loyalty among their core supporters, but winning elections requires appealing to the moderate majority. The protests sweeping the Arab world have so far been notable for their lack of Islamist or sectarian sentiment, and nowhere among the countries in flux is there a charismatic religious leader such as Ayatollah Khomeini ready to seize power.

An Islamist victory somewhere in the Middle East can't be ruled out, but that does not mean we will see a replay of Iran circa 1979. Never in the Arab world have any Islamist election gains resulted in a theocracy, and established Islamist parties across the region have proved willing to work within multiparty systems. Moreover, newly elected Islamists would not have free rein to impose theocracy. Whoever is elected president in Tunisia or Egypt will face mobilized populations with little patience for fresh dictatorial methods as well as secular militaries likely to resist any theocratic impulses.


"Democracy Experts Know How to Help."

Yes, but humility is needed. With all the experience of attempted democratic transitions around the world over the past 25 years, is a clear "transition tool kit" now available to would-be Arab democrats? Western democracy promoters are indeed hurrying to organize seminars and conferences in the region to present lessons learned from other parts of the world. Former activists from Chile, the Philippines, Poland, South Africa, and other new democracies are in demand. Arab activists are eager to learn from the experience of others, and in many cases their hunger for knowledge is intense.

The traveling transition veterans tend to showcase a fairly common set of lessons: Opposition unity is crucial. Constitutional reform should be inclusive. Elections should not be hurried, but also not put off indefinitely. Banning large swaths of the former ruling elite from political life is a mistake. Putting a politically grasping military back in the box should be approached step by step, rather than in one big swoop. Given likely public disenchantment with the fruits of democracy, finding rapid ways to deliver tangible economic benefits is critical.

Such lessons are valid, but the notion of a workable tool kit is dubious. Every Arab country, be it Morocco, Bahrain, or Yemen, has such particular local sociopolitical conditions that supposedly universal lessons will be only suggestive at best. Nostrums about the importance of opposition unity, for example, often derive from countries such as in Chile, Poland, and South Africa, where political opposition movements enjoyed a much higher level of organization and concentration than what exists in the Arab states. Forging unity in a situation like Egypt or Tunisia where mass protest movements draw from dozens of smaller, often informal opposition groups and lack any strong leaders is a very different matter. A six-month wait for elections may be reasonable in some cases, but much too short in others. Moreover, these lessons are often useful more as descriptions of endpoints rather than processes. The hard part -- how to achieve them -- has to be figured out case by case.

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"Europe Has a Major Role to Play."

It could. Given its proximity to the Arab world, its welter of diplomatic ties, the weight of its commercial connections, its ample aid budgets, and much else, Europe should be a major player in the region's political evolution. During the last two decades, Europe set up gleaming cooperative frameworks to intensify economic and political ties with the region, including firmly stated principles of democracy and human rights. Yet the first of these, the so-called Barcelona Process, proved to be toothless on democracy and rights. Its successor, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's Union for the Mediterranean, was even weaker.

A whole series of obstacles have inhibited Europe's efforts to turn its value-based intentions into real support for Arab political reform. European leaders fear that political change might produce refugee flows heading north, disruption in oil supplies, and a rise in radical Islamist activity. Traditional French and British ties with nondemocratic Arab elites only add to the mix. The tendency of lowest-common-denominator policies by the consensus-oriented European Union has further undercut efforts to take democracy seriously.

The new fervor for democracy in the Middle East represents an enormous opportunity for Europe to regain credibility in this domain. The European Union played an invaluable role in helping influence the political direction of Central and Eastern Europe after 1989 thanks to the promise of membership for those states meeting certain political and economic standards. The same offer is clearly not possible now, but the core idea should be preserved. Numerous Arab societies badly need reference points and defined trajectories as they try to move away from decades of stagnant autocratic rule. If Europe could reinvigorate its tired and overused concept of neighborhood partnership by offering real incentives on trade, aid, and other fronts to Arab states that respect democratic principles and human rights, it could redeem its past passivity. Brussels appears to be starting to move in this direction -- but follow-through will be the rub.


"The United States Is Now on Democracy's Side."

Not so fast. In his most recent State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama highlighted the success of protests in Tunisia, declaring that "the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia and supports the democratic aspirations of all people." Then, shortly after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt, Obama pledged that the United States stands "ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary -- and asked for -- to pursue a credible transition to a democracy." On Libya, the United States has joined the many international calls for Muammar al-Qaddafi to leave. Has the United States finally turned the page on its long-standing support for autocratic stability in the Arab world? George W. Bush started to turn that page in 2003 by eloquently declaring that the United States was moving away from its old ways and taking the cause of Arab democracy seriously. But various unsettling events, especially Hamas's coming to power in Palestine in 2006, caused the Bush administration to let the page fall back to its old place.

It is as yet uncertain whether a fundamental change in U.S. policy will occur. The dream of Arab democracy appears to resonate with Obama, and numerous U.S. officials and aid practitioners are burning the candle at both ends to find ways to support the emerging democratic transitions. Yet enduring U.S. interests in the region continue to incline important parts of the Washington policy establishment to hope for stability more than democracy. Concerns over oil supplies undergird a continuing strong attachment to the Persian Gulf monarchies. The need for close cooperation on counterterrorism with many of the region's military and intelligence services fuels enduring ties. Washington's special relationship with Israel prompts fears of democratic openings that could result in populist governments that aggressively play the anti-Israel card.

Given the complex mix of U.S. interests and the probable variety of political outcomes in the region, U.S. policy is unlikely to coalesce around any unified line. A shift in rhetoric in favor of democracy will undoubtedly emerge, but policy on the ground will vary greatly from country to country, embodying inconsistencies that reflect clashing imperatives. Comparing U.S. policies with regard to democracy in the former Soviet Union is instructive: sanctions against and condemnations of the dictator in Belarus, accommodation and even praise for the strongman in Kazakhstan, strenuous efforts at constructive partnership with undemocratic Russia, active engagement in democracy support in Moldova, a live-and-let-live attitude toward autocratic Azerbaijan, and genuine concern over democratic backsliding in Ukraine. A similar salad bar of policy lines toward a changed Middle East is easy to imagine.

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Think Again

Think Again: Education

Relax, America. Chinese math whizzes and Indian engineers aren't stealing your kids' future.

"American Kids Are Falling Behind."

Not really. Anybody seeking signs of American decline in the early 21st century need look no further, it would seem, than the latest international educational testing results. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) -- the most-watched international measure in the field -- found that American high school students ranked 31st out of 65 economic regions in mathematics, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading. Students from the Chinese city of Shanghai, meanwhile, shot to the top of the ranking in all three categories -- and this was the first time they had taken the test.

"For me, it's a massive wake-up call," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Washington Post when the results were released in December. "Have we ever been satisfied as Americans being average in anything? Is that our aspiration? Our goal should be absolutely to lead the world in education." The findings drove home the sense that the United States faced, as President Barack Obama put it in his State of the Union address, a "Sputnik moment."

In fact, the U.S. education system has been having this sort of Sputnik moment since -- well, Sputnik. Six months after the 1957 Soviet satellite launch that shook the world, a Life magazine cover story warned Americans of a "crisis in education." An accompanying photo essay showed a 16-year-old boy in Chicago sitting through undemanding classes, hanging out with his girlfriend, and attending swim-team practices, while his Moscow counterpart -- an aspiring physicist -- spent six days a week conducting advanced chemistry and physics experiments and studying English and Russian literature. The lesson was clear: Education was an international competition and one in which losing carried real consequences. The fear that American kids are falling behind the competition has persisted even as the competitors have changed, the budding Muscovite rocket scientist replaced with a would-be engineer in Shanghai.

This latest showing of American 15-year-olds certainly isn't anything to brag about. But American students' performance is only cause for outright panic if you buy into the assumption that scholastic achievement is a zero-sum competition between nations, an intellectual arms race in which other countries' gain is necessarily the United States' loss. American competitive instincts notwithstanding, there is no reason for the United States to judge itself so harshly based purely on its position in the global pecking order. So long as American schoolchildren are not moving backward in absolute terms, America's relative place in global testing tables is less important than whether the country is improving teaching and learning enough to build the human capital it needs.

And by this measure, the U.S. education system, while certainly in need of significant progress, doesn't look to be failing so spectacularly. The performance of American students in science and math has actually improved modestly since the last round of this international test in 2006, rising to the developed-country average in science while remaining only slightly below average in math. U.S. reading scores, in the middle of the pack for developed countries, are more or less unchanged since the most recent comparable tests in 2003. It would probably be unrealistic to expect much speedier progress. As Stuart Kerachsky, deputy commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, put it, "The needle doesn't move very far very fast in education."

"The United States Used to Have the World's Smartest Schoolchildren."

No, it didn't. Even at the height of U.S. geopolitical dominance and economic strength, American students were never anywhere near the head of the class. In 1958, Congress responded to the Sputnik launch by passing the National Defense Education Act, which provided financial support for college students to study math, science, and foreign languages, and was accompanied by intense attention to raising standards in those subjects in American schools. But when the results from the first major international math test came out in 1967, the effort did not seem to have made much of a difference. Japan took first place out of 12 countries, while the United States finished near the bottom.

By the early 1970s, American students were ranking last among industrialized countries in seven of 19 tests of academic achievement and never made it to first or even second place in any of them. A decade later, "A Nation at Risk," the landmark 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, cited these and other academic failings to buttress its stark claim that "if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

Each new cycle of panic and self-flagellation has brought with it a fresh crop of reformers touting a new solution to U.S. scholastic woes. A 1961 book by Arthur S. Trace Jr. called What Ivan Knows That Johnny Doesn't, for instance, suggested that American students were falling behind their Soviet peers because they weren't learning enough phonics and vocabulary. Today's anxieties are no different, with education wonks from across the policy spectrum enlisting the U.S. education system's sorry global ranking to make the case for their pet ideas. J. Michael Shaughnessy, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, argues that the latest PISA test "underscores the need for integrating reasoning and sense making in our teaching of mathematics." Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, claims that the same results "tell us … that if you don't make smart investments in teachers, respect them, or involve them in decision-making, as the top-performing countries do, students pay a price."

If Americans' ahistorical sense of their global decline prompts educators to come up with innovative new ideas, that's all to the good. But don't expect any of them to bring the country back to its educational golden age -- there wasn't one.

"Chinese Students Are Eating America's Lunch."

Only partly true. The biggest headline from the recent PISA results concerned the first-place performance of students from Shanghai, and the inevitable "the Chinese are eating our lunch" meme was hard for American commentators and policymakers to resist. "While Shanghai's appearance at the top might have been a stunner, America's mediocre showing was no surprise," declared a USA Today editorial.

China's educational prowess is real. Tiger moms are no myth -- Chinese students focus intensely on their schoolwork, with strong family support -- but these particular results don't necessarily provide compelling evidence of U.S. inferiority. Shanghai is a special case and hardly representative of China as a whole; it's a talent magnet that draws from all over China and benefits from extensive government investment in education. Scores for the United States and other countries, by contrast, reflect the performance of a geographic cross-section of teenagers. China -- a vast country whose hinterlands are poorer and less-educated than its coastal cities -- would likely see its numbers drop if it attempted a similar assessment.

What about perennial front-runners like Finland and South Korea, whose students were again top scorers? These countries undoubtedly deserve credit for high educational accomplishment. In some areas -- the importance of carefully selected, high-quality teachers, for example -- they might well provide useful lessons for the United States. But they have nothing like the steady influx of immigrants, mostly Latinos, whose children attend American public schools. And unfortunately, the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic demographics of the United States -- none of which have analogues in Finland or South Korea -- correlate closely with yawning achievement gaps in education. Non-Hispanic white and Asian pupils in the United States do about as well on these international tests as students from high-scoring countries like Canada and Japan, while Latino and black teens -- collectively more than a third of the American students tested -- score only about as well as those from Turkey and Bulgaria, respectively.

To explain is not to excuse, of course. The United States has an obligation to give all its citizens a high-quality education; tackling the U.S. achievement gap should be a moral imperative. But alarmist comparisons with other countries whose challenges are quite different from those of the United States don't help. Americans should be less worried about how their own kids compare with kids in Helsinki than how students in the Bronx measure up to their peers in Westchester County.

"The U.S. No Longer Attracts the Best and Brightest."

Wrong. While Americans have worried about their elementary and high school performance for decades, they could reliably comfort themselves with the knowledge that at least their college education system was second to none. But today, American university leaders fret that other countries are catching up in, among other things, the market for international students, for whom the United States has long been the world's largest magnet. The numbers seem to bear this out. According to the most recent statistics, the U.S. share of foreign students fell from 24 percent in 2000 to just below 19 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, countries like Australia, Canada, and Japan saw increased market shares from their 2000 levels, though they are still far below the American numbers.

The international distribution of mobile students is clearly changing, reflecting an ever more competitive global higher-education market. But there are many more foreign students in the United States than there were a decade ago -- 149,000 more in 2008 than in 2000, a 31 percent increase. What has happened is that there are simply many more of them overall studying outside their home countries. Some 800,000 students ventured abroad in 1975; that number reached 2 million in 2000 and ballooned to 3.3 million in 2008. In other words, the United States has a smaller piece of the pie, but the pie has gotten much, much larger.

And even with its declining share, the United States still commands 9 percentage points more of the market than its nearest competitor, Britain. For international graduate study, American universities are a particularly powerful draw in fields that may directly affect the future competitiveness of a country's economy: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In disciplines such as computer science and engineering, more than six in 10 doctoral students in American programs come from foreign countries.

But that doesn't mean there's nothing to worry about. Although applications from international students to American graduate schools have recovered from their steep post-9/11 decline, the number of foreigners earning science and engineering doctorates at U.S. universities recently dropped for the first time in five years. American schools face mounting competition from universities in other countries, and the United States' less-than-welcoming visa policies may give students from overseas more incentive to go elsewhere. That's a loss for the United States, given the benefits to both its universities and its economy of attracting the best and brightest from around the world.

"American Universities Are Being Overtaken."

Not so fast. There's no question that the growing research aspirations of emerging countries have eroded the long-standing dominance of North America, the European Union, and Japan. Asia's share of the world's research and development spending grew from 27 to 32 percent from 2002 to 2007, led mostly by China, India, and South Korea, according to a 2010 UNESCO report. The traditional research leaders saw decreases during the same period. From 2002 to 2008, the U.S. proportion of articles in the Thomson Reuters Science Citation Index, the authoritative database of research publications, fell further than any other country's, from 30.9 to 27.7 percent. Meanwhile, the number of Chinese publications recorded in the same index more than doubled, as did the volume of scientific papers from Brazil, a country whose research institutions wouldn't have been on anyone's radar 20 years ago.

This shift in the geography of knowledge production is certainly noteworthy, but as with the international study market, the United States simply represents a proportionally smaller piece of a greatly expanded pie. R&D spending worldwide massively surged in the last decade, from $790 billion to $1.1 trillion, up 45 percent. And the declining U.S. share of global research spending still represented a healthy increase in constant dollars, from $277 billion in 2002 to $373 billion in 2007. U.S. research spending as a percentage of GDP over the same period was consistent and very high by global standards. The country's R&D investments still totaled more than all Asian countries' combined.

Similarly, a declining U.S. share of the world's scientific publications may sound bad from an American point of view. But the total number of publications listed in the Thomson Reuters index surged by more than a third from 2002 to 2008. Even with a shrinking global lead, U.S. researchers published 46,000 more scientific articles in 2008 than they did six years earlier. And in any case, research discoveries don't remain within the borders of the countries where they occur -- knowledge is a public good, with little regard for national boundaries. Discoveries in one country's research institutions can be capitalized on by innovators elsewhere. Countries shouldn't be indifferent to the rise in their share of the research -- big breakthroughs can have positive economic and academic spillover effects -- but they also shouldn't fear the increase of cutting-edge discoveries elsewhere.

"The World Will Catch Up."

Maybe, but don't count on it anytime soon. And don't count on it mattering. The global academic marketplace is without doubt growing more competitive than ever. Countries from China and South Korea to Saudi Arabia have made an urgent priority of creating world-class universities or restoring the lost luster of once great institutions. And they're putting serious money into it: China is spending billions on expanding enrollment and improving its elite research institutions, while Saudi King Abdullah has funneled $10 billion into the brand-new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

But the United States doesn't have just a few elite schools, like most of its ostensible competitors; it has a deep bench of outstanding institutions. A 2008 Rand Corp. report found that nearly two-thirds of the most highly cited articles in science and technology come from the United States, and seven in 10 Nobel Prize winners are employed by American universities. And the United States spends about 2.9 percent of its GDP on postsecondary education, about twice the percentage spent by China, the European Union, and Japan in 2006.

But while the old U.S.-centric order of elite institutions is unlikely to be wholly overturned, it will gradually be shaken up in the coming decades. Asian countries in particular are making significant progress and may well produce some great universities within the next half-century, if not sooner. In China, for instance, institutions such as Tsinghua and Peking universities in Beijing and Fudan and Shanghai Jiao Tong universities in Shanghai could achieve real prominence on the world stage.

But over the long term, exactly where countries sit in the university hierarchy will be less and less relevant, as Americans' understanding of who is "us" and who is "them" gradually changes. Already, a historically unprecedented level of student and faculty mobility has become a defining characteristic of global higher education. Cross-border scientific collaboration, as measured by the volume of publications by co-authors from different countries, has more than doubled in two decades. Countries like Singapore and Saudi Arabia are jump-starting a culture of academic excellence at their universities by forging partnerships with elite Western institutions such as Duke, MIT, Stanford, and Yale.

The notion of just how much a university really has to be connected to a particular location is being rethought, too. Western universities, from Texas A&M to the Sorbonne, have garnered much attention by creating, admittedly with mixed results, some 160 branch campuses in Asia and the Middle East, many launched in the last decade. New York University recently went one step further by opening a full-fledged liberal arts campus in Abu Dhabi, part of what NYU President John Sexton envisions as a "global network university." One day, as University of Warwick Vice Chancellor Nigel Thrift suggests, we may see outright mergers between institutions -- and perhaps ultimately the university equivalent of multinational corporations.

In this coming era of globalized education, there is little place for the Sputnik alarms of the Cold War, the Shanghai panic of today, and the inevitable sequels lurking on the horizon. The international education race worth winning is the one to develop the intellectual capacity the United States and everyone else needs to meet the formidable challenges of the 21st century -- and who gets there first won't matter as much as we once feared.