Fulbright and the decline of America’s cultural diplomacy

U.S. universities and foreign service offices suffer when we cut funding for educational exchange programs

June 4, 2014 12:15AM ET
Fulbright alumni help U.S. Embassy cultural attachés cut a cake as they mark the launch of 2015 Fulbright in Pakistan on Feb. 11.
U.S. Embassy Pakistan

My father came to the United States from Ghana on the American Field Service international scholarship program in 1968. He was part of a select group of Ghanaian students chosen to spend their high school senior year at an American school. He ended up in Crystal Lake, Illinois. He used his soccer skills cultivated in the dirt fields of Ghana to become kicker for his school’s football team, and he went on to study chemistry at the University of Chicago, then medicine at Washington University in St. Louis.

Forty years later, everything came full circle. In 2008 I was selected as a Fulbright scholar to study the political influence of call-in radio shows in Ghana. I had never stayed in Ghana for longer than a few weeks. I was eager to learn as much as I could about Ghanaian culture, history and politics. In exchange, I was charged with being the United States’ cultural ambassador in my collaborations with Ghanaian journalists — a role I undertook with great pride.

For many immigrant families, including my Ghanaian parents, the U.S. is the global gold standard for educational opportunities. To them, America was one of the few countries that invested in the exchange of people, ideas and learning. The international exchange program was a gateway to the American dream. In the 1950s and ’60s, intercultural programs represented an important pillar of America’s public diplomacy around the world.

This U.S. leadership in cultural diplomacy is now decaying, in part because international partnership programs are on the fiscal chopping block. For example, the Fulbright scholarship, the United States’ flagship international exchange program, is facing more than $30 million in congressional budget cuts. The program — which began in 1946 as a way to foster relationships with foreign citizens and governments — operates in 155 countries, sending nearly 8,000 students, researchers and professors on international exchanges each year. It has more than 300,000 alumni around the world.

In addition to its minuscule budget (less than 1 percent of U.S. budget requests for foreign assistance), some 49 countries share the costs of administering Fulbright grants with the U.S. government, making the program extremely cost effective. “Fulbright is an inexpensive investment for long-term understanding,” said Jeff Rice, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University. “Decreasing Fulbright decreases knowledge.” He has advised students at Northwestern on their Fulbright applications for 13 years. The school is one of the top 10 producers of Fulbright scholars in the country. Amid looming cuts and funding uncertainty, more Fulbright applicants at Northwestern have been wait-listed this year compared with previous years, according to Rice.

More scholars, not soldiers

The proposed cuts to educational exchange programs is severe myopia on the part of U.S policymakers. Ironically, the Fulbright scholarship was created using funds from the U.S. war surplus after World War II. Today we live in an era of extreme militarization of U.S. foreign policy, especially since the so-called war on terrorism took hold. As the United States tries to contain rising tides of extremism around the globe, we need more people-to-people international exchanges, not more surveillance.

It is no secret that the U.S. has a serious image problem in many parts of the world, particularly the Middle East. The calculus for global security has shifted since Sen. J. William Fulbright established the grant with the aim of preserving world peace. “The globe has tilted to match the slant of America’s exceptional (and mostly classified) interests, as well as a version of national security dependent on secrecy, not exchange, and war, not peace,” Anna Jones recently wrote in an op-ed for Mother Jones. In order to preserve peace and dispel anti-American sentiments around the world, as Jones said, we need more scholars, not soldiers.

The U.S. is the world’s largest provider of foreign assistance. For instance, for the 2015 fiscal year, President Barack Obama requested more than $50 billion for foreign aid. Commitment to educational exchange programs must be a part of the increase in foreign aid. Defunding overseas fellowship opportunities means fewer qualified people in the U.S. foreign policy apparatus. It also means that fewer people will enter the field of international development with the language skills and cultural dexterity necessary to effectively guide U.S. aid programs in recipient countries. Global understanding and appreciation for mutual threats come through long-term study, research, openness and the exchange of ideas.

The proposed Fulbright budget cuts have caused an uproar in the program’s alumni network. Former scholarship recipients have set up petitions and launched social media campaigns urging Congress to restore funding for the program to $234 million. The hashtag #savefulbright asks people to write to their congressional representatives and press them to revise the proposed budget. 

Seminars and workshops cannot be the cornerstones of American foreign engagement.

The shrinking of foreign exchange programs affects U.S. universities. As Karin Fischer pointed out in The New York Times, U.S. universities are no longer the primary destinations of learning, especially for students from countries with rapidly developing economies such as South Korea and China. To promote regional interconnection and learning, many of these countries have introduced their own exchange programs in the Fulbright mold. For example, Confucius Institutes are rapidly sprouting up in Africa.

In 2009 the Chinese government set up the 20 +20 program, a partnership among 20 African and 20 Chinese universities. According to Cen Jiajun, an official with the Chinese Ministry of Education, in 2013 there were more than 35,000 African students studying at Chinese universities. An estimated 12,000 of these students were on scholarships offered by the Chinese government.

To maintain America’s global competitive edge, U.S. lawmakers should commit to supporting educational exchange programs, especially from emerging economies in Africa, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and East Asia. Instead investment in long-term mutual understanding is being replaced by short-term paternalistic initiatives. This summer, the White House will host the first Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI) bringing some 500 handpicked leaders and entrepreneurs from various African countries to the U.S. for six weeks of networking, seminars and workshops.

There is no doubt that the winners of YALI fellowships will reap personal benefits and relish the photo ops. While YALI is being heralded with much fanfare, grants for longer, more sustained research and travel for researchers and scholars are quietly being cut. In lieu of six weeks of schmoozing in Washington, it would be much more effective if these young leaders and entrepreneurs were given a year to support their research at home or at U.S. universities. Similarly, it would have been great if African countries hosted American entrepreneurs to enhance appreciation for Africa’s diversity and create a cross-cultural understanding of African business, policy and civil environments.

Seminars and workshops cannot be the cornerstones of American foreign engagement. In a word, diplomacy is about building relationships. But U.S. policymakers seem to have forgotten that basic fact. 

Karen Attiah is a journalist and editor based in Washington, D.C. She was a Fulbrighter in Ghana in 2008.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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