Assistant Secretary-designate Ryan: ECA “the lifeblood of public diplomacy”

In a Senate confirmation hearing this afternoon (July 30), Evan Ryan, President Obama’s nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), said that exchanges “capitalize on American strengths and appeals,” and that ECA is “the lifeblood of public diplomacy”.

Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ryan underlined the powerful role people-to-people exchanges play in advancing U.S. public diplomacy and foreign policy goals.

The 350,000 participants who come to the U.S. every year on Department of State exchange programs “see America first-hand”, Ryan told committee members, stressing the key role Americans play in teaching exchange participants about the United States.

“Every day, your constituents demonstrate American values through their hospitality,” she said.

Ryan said that exchange programs put the U.S. in touch with “the world’s future problem solvers,” drawn from “every region and background”. She quoted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who called exchanges “national security insurance”.

Ryan outlined four strategic priorities for ECA:

  1. The alignment of Department of State exchange programs with current U.S. foreign policy priorities;
  2. The use of technology to expand the Department’s reach to audiences around the world;
  3. Intensified engagement with State Department exchange alumni;
  4. Broader opportunities for Americans to participate in exchanges.

After her opening statement, several committee members engaged Ryan in a discussion about ECA programs:

Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) expressed concern about potential budget cuts for exchanges. Stating that exchanges are “probably one of our best-used resources,” he expressed concern about the possibility of significant reductions in funding [the Alliance reported on the House and Senate FY14 exchange appropriation].

Ryan responded that ECA is working closely with regional bureaus to ensure exchange programs are in line with U.S. foreign policy priorities and that they meet the needs of the changing global landscape. Menendez commended Ryan on her reference to ECA’s use of new media, saying that this provides an opportunity to broaden the State Department’s reach worldwide during times of budgetary constraints. During her conversation with the Chairman, Ryan underlined the power of English language programs, noting that these enable people to gain access to American media and constitute “a very subtle and powerful diplomatic tool.”

Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-TN), referred obliquely to the Exchange Visitor Program (EVP) and expressed concern about efforts being underway to “clamp down” on these programs, which he noted expose exchange participants to free enterprise and entrepreneurship. He asked Ryan to resist such efforts, and encouraged her to expand the programs.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) noted that the State Department’s Exchange Visitor Program  is a recurrent constituent question for his office, and that Virginians are “big fans” of State Department exchanges bringing international teachers to Virginia’s public schools. Kaine added that Virginia has been working with the State Department on a 2-year extension of the program length from three to five years. Ryan responded that she is very aware of the importance of these exchanges, which, she said, not only teach critical language skills to American youth but also expose them to different cultures.

Ms. Ryan's testimony as prepared for delivery is available here.