Why We Shouldn't Stop Funding Educational Exchanges

November 12, 2010

By Victor C Johnson

If we are able to observe in the afterlife the accuracy of the statements that we made while on Earth, there must be no one more blessed with eternal happiness than the Spanish philosopher George Santayana, whose famous observation, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is confirmed every day.

Right now, Santayana must be particularly delighted with our colleagues at the Heritage Foundation, who, it appears, have forgotten yet again how important educational and cultural exchanges have been for America’s security, public diplomacy, and international leadership. The foundation’s October 28, 2010, Backgrounder on Budget and Spendingproposes eliminating these programs entirely (along with many other worthy international programs). This is particularly dismaying because, only a few years ago, NAFSA cosponsored an event with the Heritage Foundation and others at which leading experts made a strong case for placing international education and exchange at the heart of America’s public diplomacy efforts. In 2008, when NAFSA released International Education: The Neglected Dimension of Public Diplomacy, which advocated more resources and a strengthened role for exchanges, Heritage’s Jim Carafano wrote: "The association has to be commended for bringing attention to a vital issue impacting on national competitiveness. Americans need to pay attention."

Exchanges were an integral component of America’s strategy to construct a secure post-World War II international order and to ensure that the values of free nations endured. At the end of the Cold War, a new Republican Congress forgot the past and declared exchanges to be no longer necessary. Programs were decimated by draconian budget cuts. Ironically, it was a Republican administration that rediscovered the virtues of these programs. In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush understood that although the Cold War was over, the battle of values wasn’t—and would never be. Under his Presidency, and with the cooperation, initially, of a Republican Congress and then of a Democratic one, exchange programs enjoyed a renaissance. Now, apparently, we are forgetting once more, and a new Republican Congress is being presented with an agenda that again declares these essential programs to be obsolete.

Those of us who value and defend educational and cultural exchange must recognize that we share part of the blame for this unfortunate situation. We all too readily jump on whatever bandwagon exchanges are riding at the moment—whatever talking points work in the battle for our appropriation—and so we are at risk when the political winds shift, the political agenda changes, and new talking points drive the debate. I well remember, when I worked for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, those halcyon days when Members of Congress couldn’t introduce exchanges legislation fast enough. Why? Because, the argument went, the Soviet Union was in some sense outdoing us in this field, and we had to compete and catch up. These were wonderful taking points—until there was no more Soviet Union. We were left without a rationale, and the consequences followed.

What is the rationale for exchanges today? We must do a better job of articulating this. After 9/11, we want people to like us, not to hate us. We’ve had a merry ride on the appropriations bandwagon as our political leadership added more funds to the exchanges budget every year so people would like us. All of these funds are necessary, but our rationale is insufficient to sustain them. Our rationale isn’t as powerful as the programs—and that is a dangerous situation. We are all delighted that whenever the President, the First Lady, Secretary Clinton, or Under Secretary McHale touch down in a foreign land, a standard element of their talking points is, “We need more exchanges with this country.” That is important—but it’s not a policy.

Ultimately, the enduring value of exchanges lies in the reality that America is bound to the global community—that our security, our freedom, and our well-being are bound to the security, freedom, and well-being of others. As NAFSA said in the aforementioned paper, this was the vision that drove the postwar generation of foreign policy leaders—that “America’s security lay in a secure world, where people were free to pursue their aspirations for themselves and for their children.” That is still the case today—and exchanges are as essential to building and sustaining that vision today as they were then. And as long as there is international politics, they always will be. This is a vision that does not obsolesce, and that can survive the vicissitudes of politics. But to ensure that it does, we must make sure that our exchange programs are conceived, structured, and conducted to advance this vision.

To quote NAFSA’s public diplomacy paper again,

When Congress began to downgrade [exchange] programs at the end of the Cold War, deeming them no longer a priority, it was excising the connective tissue that binds the American people to the world’s people.

It was a mistake then; it is a mistake now. Last time, we understood our mistake only after we made it. This time, let’s remember the past before we repeat it.


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