Critics of foreign policy in the Obama presidency argue about where the greatest failure of the administration is to be found. Is it in the gas clouds of Syria, the thumb drives of a disgruntled NSA employee, the congressionally bellowed embers of Benghazi, or the pugnacious Putin land grabs? It’s a lively debate, and we have an item to add to the list.
This year the Obama administration is proposing a 13 percent cut in the budget for Fulbright scholarships. This is one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes his administration has made.
It is admittedly a small decision with no life or death consequences. It involves $30 million — less than the effective cost of two MQ-9 Reaper drones. But unlike most foreign policy mistakes that involve interaction with rogues, rivals and, enemies, this is a mistake of our own making. We don’t have to make this cut. There are good reasons not to.
Before proceeding, a disclaimer is required. This year, we held Fulbright grants to work in Ireland. We cannot claim to be independent or objective observers of the proposed cuts to the Fulbright budget. But we can offer insights that come from recent program participants.
The Fulbright idea is simple. An international exchange of scholars can foster better understanding and relations among nations. The Fulbright program provides small grants to help American students and teachers learn and work abroad and foreign students and scholars to visit the United States. That description could be caricatured as vacations for academic vagrants. But that’s not fair.
Money for overseas study and research is in short supply and the annual competition to get Fulbright support is intense on American campuses and around the world. The few who are chosen are not likely to waste their time or the modest funding they receive.
Awardees bring the benefits of this international exchange of ideas and culture home. And not only to the most elite and expensive schools, but also to small private colleges, flagship universities, and regional state institutions that rarely have resources to support international engagement.
Some might argue that in an era of globalization, the American government no longer needs to support academic exchange programs in Ireland. The Irish watch “Breaking Bad,’’ and Americans flock to see “River Dance.’’ Plenty of tourists go back and forth. Moreover, many American companies have their logos on prominent Dublin office buildings. Ironically, the high volume of contact between our two countries does not diminish the need for scholarly exchange. It increases it.
International investment and the movement of corporate employees between Ireland and the United States can create closer ties, but those ties cry out for independent examination. It would help both nations if occasionally a public policy expert crossed the Atlantic and studied the tax laws and loopholes that grease the gears of globalization.
The worldwide distribution of popular culture and the travel of tourists create an illusion that nations know each other well. But casual cultural acquaintance can never replace the deeper kind that occurs when poets and musicians, historians and journalists, scientists and technicians get to know each other in extended periods of collaboration at colleges, universities, research centers and laboratories. Those collaborations should be at the heart of a college education, providing students the opportunity to achieve the highest possible level of creativity, curiosity and understanding in a global context.
Here in Ireland, the Fulbright Commission helps native speaking students of the Irish language visit the rare American campuses where the language is taught and studied. Few projects do more to enhance genuine cultural communication than the linking of Irish language speakers across the Atlantic.
Scholars travel with a different agenda than tourists, immigrants, armies, or executives. They are not the only people involved in globalization, but they have a part to play and one that has lots of benefits.
A cut of $30 million is chump change in a federal budget of nearly $4 trillion, and our calling it a major foreign policy blunder will strike some as hyperbolic and self-serving. Perhaps it is. But buying international insight and understanding at a reasonable price is an exceedingly wise investment in a world where foreign policy failures are all too common.
Harry S. Laver is a professor of history at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond and Robert A. Strong is a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.