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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

These new ECA programs speak of "partnership," but they are not like the Fulbright Program's mutual exchanges. They are unilateral projects whose aim is to identify and cultivate the locals we can do business with in countries that may or may not welcome our outreach, or our handpicked young leaders either. Recall that Captain Amadou Sanogo, who led the 2012 coup that overthrew the elected government of Mali, started a war, and destabilized a vast region of Africa, was selected and trained in the United States under another State Department scheme: the International Military Education and Training program.

The ECA also plans to spend $2.5 million next year in Vietnam on what seems to be a consolation prize: a new American Fulbright University, named in honor of Senator J. William Fulbright who created the flagship program that bears his name and ushered it through Congress back in 1946. Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat, was then a first-term senator whose experience as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford had fostered his international perspective. He went on to spend 30 years in the Senate, becoming the longest serving chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the twentieth century's most influential senators. Yet if the State Department has its way, the proposed university to be named in his honor will be paid for by money cut from the international exchange program he considered his most important achievement.

In fact, there's no good reason why the ECA budget should be balanced on the back of the Fulbright Program in the first place. Overall, the federal budget for international exchange programs will actually increase by 1.6 percent in 2015, to a proposed $577.9 million, while the total proposed budget for the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) will be $46.2 billion.

Surely that's money enough to fully fund the Fulbright Program as well as those short-term, shortsighted, potentially explosive unilateral ones. So you have to ask: Why, with all those billions in pocket, must $30 million be snatched from Fulbright and its priceless reputation discounted?

At her confirmation hearing, Evan Ryan gave the game away, signaling to the senators that she knows perfectly well what she's doing. She assured them that her office was "working closely with regional bureaus to ensure exchange programs are in line with US foreign policy priorities and that they meet the needs of the changing global landscape."

Soldiers, Not Scholars

There, of course, is the catch. The Fulbright Program was never meant to be a tool of foreign policy, much less a tactic of military intervention. It was and still is "designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries." Senator Fulbright himself thought Americans had the most to learn. Asked near the end of his life what he had intended by the exchange program, he said, "Aw, hell, I just wanted to educate these goddam ignorant Americans!"

In the aftermath of World War II, he hoped that both the educational and humanizing effects of an international exchange program would promote peace and that within peace would be found authentic security for everyone. At the time, all nations counted and the world was round.

Now the landscape has shifted, and 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 upon secrecy, not exchange, and war, not peace. You can see how the land lies today by tracing the dispersal of US troops around that badly bashed and lopsided globe or tracking the itinerary of President Obama, just back from an Asian trip that included a new agreement extending the reach of soldiers, not scholars.

You can search hard and find little trace of those quaint old notions of international understanding and peace on the American agenda. Consider it a sign of the times that a president who, from his Nobel acceptance speech putting in a good word for war to his surges in Afghanistan to the "kill list" he regularly mulls over in the White House, has hardly been a Nobel Prize-quality executive, yet must still repeatedly defend himself against charges that he is too slow and far too wussy to go to war, perhaps as a result of his own "un-American" international childhood.

This is scarcely the moment for Washington to knock one nickel off its budget for international exchange. Longstanding educational partners of the US in Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, and elsewhere now have other excellent opportunities for intellectual, scientific, and artistic exchange. Meanwhile, the dysfunctional, militarized, pistol-packin' United States has lost much of its global allure. It was precisely this sort of isolation from the ideas and experiences of other cultures—self-imposed by our own overweening ignorance—that Fulbright feared. In his classic book The Arrogance of Power, published in 1966 in the midst of another unnecessary American war, he warned against the historic tendency of powerful nations to mistake military might for moral and intellectual strength and, by overreaching in an attempt to impose their views upon the world, to bring themselves to ruin.

Fulbright was hopeful that the United States might avoid this trap by "finding the wisdom to match her power," but he was not confident because, as he wrote, "the wisdom required is greater wisdom than any great nation has ever shown before." It is certainly greater than the wisdom in evidence in Washington today.

Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Kabul in Winter, and War Is Not Over When It's Over, among other books, and most recently They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America's Wars—The Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project (Haymarket, 2013). She encourages interested readers to check out the website http://www.savefulbright.org.

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