U.S. consulates overseas issue a variety of visas to foreign nationals wanting to come to America. The type of visa an applicant receives generally depends on the purpose of travel and duration of stay. There are two broad visa categories: immigrant and nonimmigrant. Immigrant visas are issued to people who intend to settle permanently in the U.S. The nonimmigrant types are reserved for those who come on temporary visits and intend to return to their countries of origin. The U.S. Department of State website provides a long list of visa types under each category.

Being an immigrant, I was fairly knowledgeable about the visa classifications. But I wasn’t aware that there was something called the “Einstein visa.” I learned about it only recently from an article in The New Yorker magazine.

The Einstein visa, formally called the EB-1A visa, is issued to people with “extraordinary ability” in their fields. To obtain this visa, an applicant has to provide evidence of a major “one-time achievement.” Examples of such accomplishments include winning a Nobel prize, an Oscar, a Pulitzer, and an Olympic medal. According to The New Yorker article, only one percent of the 500,000 permanent residency visas issued in fiscal year 2022 were EB-1As. In essence, America not only has its homegrown one-percenters, it also lures the cream of the crop from elsewhere.

Many countries use a variety of schemes to attract foreign investment and talent. In America’s case, it almost doesn’t have to do anything to win that fierce global competition. It has somehow managed to turn itself into a huge magnet that attracts people from everywhere.

The free and open nature of American society is obviously its biggest appeal to foreigners. But America has a lot of other attractive features that other countries cannot match. Its sheer wealth, the size of its market, the depth and high liquidity of its financial markets, the vastness and lofty reputation of its higher education system, and myriad other strengths, combine to create an unparalleled well of opportunity that new arrivals, even those with nothing in their pockets, can tap to ultimately make something of themselves. This aggregation of talent creates a powerful network effect that continually increases America’s wealth.

One crucially important element that is often less discussed is language. English is the de facto language for global commerce and education. That is a huge competitive advantage for America. It is the language that pretty much all parents, regardless of where they live in the world, want their children to learn. Many middle-class parents in my native Ghana routinely break tradition by speaking English with their children at home, instead of the local dialects. They do so to help improve their children’s English proficiency. That is how vital people elsewhere consider knowledge of English to be.

As China’s economy grew rapidly over the last few decades, people around the world began to sense that perhaps someday the country would rival America as another land of opportunity. Increasing numbers of parents in various countries enrolled their children in Mandarin classes. That fever has all but vanished. Through his heavy-handed approach to governance, Xi Jinping has managed to convince a lot of people that Chinese society is not going to become as free and open as America’s anytime soon. That in turn has taken the shine off China. It is one of Xi Jinping’s biggest mistakes as a leader. Trust is one of those things that takes a long time to build but can be destroyed quickly. The mistrust he has sowed will stunt China’s economic progress for a significant length of time.

It will never be easy for languages like Mandarin and Russian to become as widely spoken as English anyway. A simple look at the alphabets of the two languages reveals why. Maybe things would be different if either of those languages had taken root around the world before English did. But as things stand, this looks like one of those first-mover advantages that is almost impossible to overcome.

In the commercial world, brand names and other intangibles constitute the bulk of assets on some corporate balance sheets. America has cultivated a brand name for itself. It also has many intangible assets that, together, make up its so-called soft power. Acquiring these assets takes time and the kind of patience that aspiring rival powers of today don’t seem to have.