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The Fulbright Program Is the Flagship of American Cultural Diplomacy. So Why Are We Cutting It?

After almost 70 years, the US State Department is implementing unprecedented cuts to the program's budget.

| Thu May 8, 2014 2:36 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Often it's the little things coming out of Washington, obscured by the big, scary headlines, that matter most in the long run. Items that scarcely make the news, or fail to attract your attention, or once noticed seem trivial, may carry consequences that endure long after the latest front-page crisis has passed. They may, in fact, signal fundamental changes in Washington's priorities and policies that could even face opposition, if only we paid attention.

Take the current case of an unprecedented, unkind, under-the-radar cut in the State Department's budget for the Fulbright Program, the venerable 68-year-old operation that annually arranges for thousands of educators, students, and researchers to be exchanged between the United States and at least 155 other countries. As Washington increasingly comes to rely on the "forward projection" of military force to maintain its global position, the Fulbright Program may be the last vestige of an earlier, more democratic, equitable, and generous America that enjoyed a certain moral and intellectual standing in the world. Yet, long advertised by the US government as "the flagship international educational exchange program" of American cultural diplomacy, it is now in the path of the State Department's torpedoes.

Right now, all over the world, former Fulbright scholars like me (Norway, 2012) are raising the alarm, trying to persuade Congress to stand by one of its best creations, passed by unanimous bipartisan consent of the Senate and signed into law by President Truman in 1946. Alumni of the Fulbright Program number more than 325,000, including more than 123,000 Americans. Among Fulbright alums are 53 from 13 different countries who have won a Nobel Prize, 28 MacArthur Foundation fellows, 80 winners of the Pulitzer Prize, 29 who have served as the head of state or government, and at least one, lunar geologist Harrison Schmitt (Norway, 1957), who walked on the moon—not to mention the hundreds of thousands who returned to their countries with greater understanding and respect for others and a desire to get along. Check the roster of any institution working for peace around the world and you're almost certain to find Fulbright alums whose career choices were shaped by international exchange. What's not to admire about such a program?

Yet the Fulbright budget, which falls under the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), seems to be on the chopping block. The proposed cut amounts to chump change in Washington, only $30.5 million. But the unexpected reduction from a $234.7 million budget this year to $204.2 million in 2015 represents 13 percent of what Fulbright gets. For such a relatively small-budget program, that's a big chunk. No one in the know will say just where the cuts are going to fall, but the most likely target could be "old Europe," and the worldwide result is likely to be a dramatic drop from 8,000 to fewer than 6,000 in the number of applicants who receive the already exceedingly modest grants.

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For the US, that's not a saving, it's a foolish blunder. Only about 1 percent of American college students ever study abroad. Fewer than 20 percent speak more than one language—a figure that includes immigrants for whom English comes second or third—but all students benefit from the presence of international "Fulbrighters" on their campuses and the return of their own professors and grad students from study and teaching in other countries. Those Fulbrighters chosen according to standards of academic excellence may seem to be an elite group, but their presence on campuses from North Dakota State to Notre Dame is thoroughly democratic. Their knowledge gained abroad, unlike money in our economy, trickles down and spreads out.

Cutting the Fulbright budget also sends a dangerous message to allies around the world: that the US is not truly committed to its biggest and best international exchange program. That news comes as a kick in the teeth to 50 partner countries that have established Fulbright commissions of their own to fund their share, or more than their share, of the mutual exchange. (Norway, for one, funds 70 percent of it.) What are good friends to make of "cultural diplomacy" like this?

Developing a Twitter-Worthy Worldview

Given what the program achieves, and what it contributes to American prestige abroad, the budget cut is a terrible idea, but the scheme behind it is worse. It hinges on the difference between thinking long and thinking short. With decades of experience, the Fulbright Program clearly welcomes the positive effects of the regular exchange of scholars and educators of proven excellence on broad issues of cultural diplomacy like peace, the progress of democracy, and economic cooperation over time. But it's not so heedless of history as to think it can determine those outcomes.

The State Department, on the other hand, is headed largely by short-term political appointees, many without specialized experience, most fixated on their own competitive careers. Their thinking leans quite naturally toward the quick fix consistent with an alarmist and historically suspect worldview, quite possibly derived from CNN, inscribed in the justification of the federal budget proposed for 2015: "Global events and trends now start, spread, and shape countries in an instant." For them, history now only happens on the fast track.

Given this Twitter-worthy worldview, the laggard State Department had to make some "strategic shifts," according to Susan Pittman, a spokesperson for State's ECA, the office now responsible for all of America's "cultural diplomacy." She claimed the shifts had to be made "in order to be able to take a different angle of doing some short-term targeted programs" in instantaneous crises like that now occurring in Ukraine. "To that end," Pittman said, "there was the desire to be able to redistribute things."

What the State Department desires to redistribute is Fulbright funding. It can't kill the program, but it can starve it. Ukraine, however, is a bad example to cite as a target for redistributed fast-action funds, since the Fulbright Program, thinking long, has been operating in Ukraine for all 23 years of that country's independence, exchanging about 1,200 scholars and educators. The spokesperson did not seem to know that, or chose not to mention it. Or perhaps Ukraine sprang to mind because her brand-new boss, Evan Ryan, a former special assistant to Vice President Biden and now—as if by magic—assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, happens to be married to President Obama's deputy national security adviser, who had just appeared on all the Sunday talk shows speaking about... you guessed it: Ukraine. Well, I'm just guessing, too, but such things happen in the crowded and intimate little space inside Washington's Beltway.

Anyway, the State Department actually has its eye on other prizes. In fact, the "strategic shifts" in State Department programming coincide miraculously well with the Obama administration's militarized "pivots" in foreign policy. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs will spend $10 million in Southeast Asia and $20 million in Africa on brand new quick-fix programs to "increase outreach" to "young leaders... shaping the... future." That's $30 million drawn from the Fulbright budget and dispatched instead to follow the ships, drones, Navy SEALs, and other Special Forces types to unpublicized points in Asia (for the containment of China) and Africa (for who knows what).

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