This nation’s government is in somewhat of a budget-cutting mood at the moment. Although this impulse is admirable, sometimes budget cutters can go too far. One such example is a proposed $30 million reduction in funding to the Fulbright Program, which sends thousands of Americans abroad every year to research, study or just generally promote cultural understanding.
This loss would not kill the program by any means, but it would mean fewer people receiving Fulbrights and less time abroad for those who do get them. It could also mean reciprocal cuts by foreign governments who send students of their own here under the banner of Fulbright exchanges.
It’s not difficult to imagine why the program would be an easy target. Americans have a wildly irrational picture of how much money this country spends on diplomatic outreach. Polling data suggests that the average American believes that about 10 percent of the total federal budget goes to foreign aid (the actual number is around one percent). That, combined with the fact that foreigners do not vote, ensures that foreign aid will always be the easiest cut to make.
Though it would be a tragedy for the thousands of people affected both here and abroad if these cuts were made, I am perhaps more troubled by what it shows about how the Obama administration intends to conduct foreign affairs.
If “soft power” is no longer a priority for the administration, there are only two possibilities left. The first is a withdrawal into isolationism, increasingly impossible in a globalized world. The second is a more militarized foreign policy, taking advantage of the only tool for the conduct of foreign policy that is still well-funded.
Both options come with great risks for ourselves and the world. The founder of the Fulbright program, Senator William Fulbright once said, “Having people who understand your thought is much greater security than another submarine.” It’s quite a bit cheaper too.
Even though we are assured at great length how the future is globalized, Americans remain uninterested in the world outside of our borders. About one percent of all American college students study abroad. Foreign language competency among non-immigrants is atrocious. The National Geographic Society declared that college students in the U.S. are for the most part “geographically illiterate.”
Consider how this ignorance of the world is playing out right now in the crisis in Nigeria. Americans can hash tag #bringbackourgirls as much as we like, but without a deep understanding of the complexities of Nigeria any help we render will probably be ineffective at best (Nigeria, incidentally, participates in Fulbright exchanges).
Fulbright is a rare bright spot in a depressing picture of general American indifference to the world. We need more college graduates going abroad to see the world first-hand and we need more foreigners coming here to see there is more to this country than McDonald’s and drone strikes.
Admittedly, I have somewhat of a vested interest in the topic, as next year I will be working as a teaching assistant in Austria thanks to the Fulbright program (although I will be safe from any cuts, as it is the Austrian government that will be paying me). I feel tremendously blessed to have this opportunity and I hate to think that students in the future will not have it.
We talk a great deal about living in a globalized world. One wonders why Washington cannot allocate its budget accordingly.