In cutting foreign exchanges, Obama Administration demonstrates short-term thinking

One of the great advantages of being a superpower like America is that everyone has to care about you. I see this all the time in a relatively small country like Korea, where news from a Congressional sub-committee’s decision about the peninsula may never get a line of print in a newspaper in the US, but is front-page news here locally.

As the former Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, once said, “Living next to [the US] is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

With the rise of China globally, and countries like Turkey, Indonesia, India, Brazil and others more regionally, America’s absolute dominance is waning. Students, business leaders, politicians, and academics now have a choice on where to spend their energies. If you are an African college student, do you learn English and head toward the West, or do you learn Chinese and head toward the East? That decision is still likely weighted toward English — for now — but the answer is not nearly as obvious as it once was.

America has to adapt to a world where people have a choice on where to study and do business. It needs to engage the world by sending more of our citizens abroad to ensure that we have dense personal networks worldwide, while also encouraging as many people as possible to come to the United States and bank their futures in our country.

That obviously means improving our immigration system, but we also need to work on policies designed to get Americans traveling outside the country.

Which leads me to the news this last week that the Obama Administration is changing how we think about student exchanges through the State Department. The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote that (paywall) the Obama Administration hopes to refocus the State Department’s current education and cultural programs to better meet our policy objectives.

The key quote comes from Evan Ryan, who is the head of such programs as the Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs. “The real impetus for these programs is to make sure that exchanges are really tied to foreign policy and foreign-policy goals, making sure that they can be responsive to where we are in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish,” she said to the Chronicle.

As a brief aside, you might wonder who Ryan is. As head of educational programs, you would expect her background to focus on teaching or research, which are the mainstays of her office. Reading over her biography, you can see that her work history includes scheduling for first lady Hillary Clinton, scheduling for senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign, communications for John Kerry for President, and (domestic) intergovernmental relations for President Obama.

But I digress. The problem with Ryan’s analysis is that our foreign-policy goals are always shifting, even though the fundamental purpose of such exchange programs is everlasting. The goal of the today’s State Department is to transform these long-term, meaningful programs into ones designed for short-term “success.”

What does this look like in practice? The Chronicle continues about a new program for African civic leaders:

In many ways, the program is the opposite of Fulbright, or at least of the well-known Fulbright scholar program, in which American and foreign participants spend up to a year abroad teaching or conducting research.

For the leadership program, the overseas stay is short (six weeks for most participants), is focused on developing a single region of the world, and is not technically an exchange because it only brings Africans to the United States and no Americans go abroad as part of it.

This is a policy designed for a world in which the United States is the monopoly superpower. That world doesn’t exist anymore.

I am a former Fulbright scholar in South Korea, where I worked with a dozen grad students at KAIST and two dozen or so people in the startup industry in Seoul and in Daejeon. Today, I am a writer based in Seoul, covering startups. Fulbright was the impetus for me to engage with the rest of the world, and today, I have presented at several conferences and talks in Asia, spreading the message of entrepreneurship and Silicon Valley. This is fundamentally good for the United States and its public diplomacy efforts.

We have to create a space for programs that don’t have immediate short-term objectives, but have tremendous value in the long-term. We see this same situation with research funding in the sciences, where there is now greater emphasis to fund research that will create jobs rather than just produce knowledge. That’s in spite of the incredible historical evidence that producing knowledge is incredibly beneficial for the economy.

We need to adapt to multipolar world that is coming, rather than design our policies for a world that no longer exists. Double-digit cuts to Fulbright and other useful programs just shows how little we understand the world that’s coming.