Educational Exchange in the Midst of Culture Wars

Article excerpt

ALTHOUGH HIS WORK WAS HUMANITARIAN RELIEF for an NGO, the Soviets and their Afghan allies would have imprisoned or killed him if they could. He kept on working after the United States abandoned Afghanistan, the Soviets departed, and the country fell into civil war. Once every few months he would sneak into Kabul after dark to visit his family, always leaving before dawn for his safety and theirs. Surely, these experiences would open a culture gap between him and those growing up in the protected environment of the United States. Yet, when I knew this soft-spoken deputy minister in Kabul in 2006 he would reminisce about "Mom and Dad," the family he lived with when studying in the United States many years ago and with whom he remained in touch through all the hard and bitter years.

This anecdote is a microcosm of the core benefit of exchanges; creating knowledge of our society by members of another who would otherwise see us only through the lens of Hollywood movies and hostile propaganda. My colleague, Thomas Boyatt, has had similar experiences. He notes that in virtually every country where we both served, leadership elements had been to the United States, usually to study, and that experience was of singular importance to them and to their views of the United States. In addition, exchanges bring extra value added in areas of ethnic conflict. In Cyprus, many of our exchange programs were designed to bring Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots together, which would have been very difficult, if not impossible, otherwise. In the Middle East and other conflict areas, U.S. exchange programs provide the first, and sometimes the only, chance for one side to know "the other."

A Steady Decline

As culture-based struggles have intensified and radicals within Islam have taken the lead in espousing a fundamentally negative view of the West in general, and the United States in particular, we have steadily been giving up one of our most effective tools to rebut this misinformation: educational exchange. This abandonment was part of a broad American distain for strong U.S. diplomacy in general, and public diplomacy in particular, that set in after the fall of communism in Europe. Even as world-wide public opinion surveys showed extensive, growing dissatisfaction with many U.S. global policies, and states like China began to assert an influence beyond Asia, our ability to explain ourselves to the world's citizens declined in every area.

In 2008 the American Academy of Diplomacy in cooperation with the Stimson Center published The Foreign Affairs Budget of the Future (, the first-ever study of resources needed by the State Department and the Agency for International Development (USAID). The project was chaired by then Ambassador Boyatt and the results were shocking. In every field, including particularly public diplomacy and within that field educational exchange, the ability to manage essential work was collapsing.

The decline in our general diplomacy could be seen in the nearly 30 percent of positions that lacked qualified language speakers because officers could not be spared from critical work to spend time in training. It was also apparent in vacant positions around the world (running then at 12 percent worldwide). In the public diplomacy budget of fiscal year 2008, its staff of 1,332 Americans was 24 percent less than the comparable 1986 total of 1,742. Its staff level was down and so were its programs.

An Essential Role

Educational exchanges are not and need not be confined to government programs but government plays an essential role in making sure poorer countries and non-elites are part of the mix. In 1983 when I left Yemen it was rare to find even a minister with English and a foreign degree. In 1997 when Í returned as a deputy assistant Secretary of State, I was impressed by how in ministry after ministry there was a whole senior staff of U.S.-educated technocrats, all trained through U. …