It has been a busy summer for those of us who promote the growth and impact of international exchange programs. In May, the White House released a detailed budget that called for an unprecedented 32 percent cut to the Department of State, and a 55 percent cut to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), which funds and oversees a wide range of critical international exchange programs which enable people-to-people diplomacy. If enacted, these cuts would greatly damage the United States’ soft power diplomacy and put our nation at risk.
The Alliance and our members got to work — meeting with Congressional lawmakers about the real-world perils of these potential cuts and making sure they understand that their decisions will impact America’s strategic interests for decades.
As Defense Secretary James Mattis has suggested, the way to reduce the possibility of war is to increase people-to-people diplomacy – which is at the heart of cultural and educational exchanges. Exchange programs enhance U.S. national security and prosperity by building productive partnerships, mutual understanding, and personal connections that help us address critical global issues including strengthening the world economy and combating terrorism. They also create a welcoming environment for over a million international students to study in the United States. Last year alone, these students contributed more than $32 billion to the U.S. economy, supporting more than 400,000 jobs across the country.
While the administration’s budget proposal serves as a set of recommendations to Congress as they make decisions about federal spending, Congress ultimately decides what is funded and what is not. And fortunately, Congress has consistently demonstrated a strong, bipartisan commitment to exchange programs. This spring, Congress passed the 2017 Omnibus Bill, which secured a seven percent budget increase for educational and cultural exchange programs through the end of the year.
We have a strong – and critical – champion in Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate subcommittee responsible for diplomacy and foreign aid, who recently argued that the cuts would “gut soft power,” and that, “If we implemented this budget, you’d have to retreat from the world or put a lot of people at risk.”
We’re extremely grateful for Senator Graham’s staunch support, as well as for the unwavering bipartisan support of Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers and Ranking Members Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Nita Lowey. All four leaders recognize that exchanges advance US interests for the long term.
Not surprisingly, U.S. ambassadors strongly agree. In an effort organized by the Alliance for International Exchange, 163 former U.S. ambassadors sent a letter to the Chairs and Ranking Members of the U.S. House and Senate Appropriations Committees – who are essential to making these funding decisions – urging them to support full funding in fiscal year 2018 for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. This historic show of support for international exchanges by the diplomatic community is significant both for the number of signatures and the broad bipartisan support it displays.
“We are former United States Ambassadors to countries across the globe. While we may differ in political ideology, we write today united with one voice to ask that the Senate and House Appropriations Committees support full funding in fiscal year 2018 for the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs,” wrote the ambassadors.
“In the countries where we have served, we have seen exchange programs help draw emerging political leaders closer to the United States, provide international scholars with critical information and contacts they need in America, and strengthen the appreciation of our country by exposing hundreds of thousands of people to our culture. These are the soft-power results that complemented our direct diplomacy efforts in countries that are critical to our national security,” they continued.
The letter came on the eve of an important mark-up in the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee of the State and Foreign Operations bill, which funds the State Department programs, including international exchanges. With bipartisan support, the committee approved funding for Educational and Cultural Exchange Programs at $590.9 million, the same level as in fiscal year 2016.
While this is a significant achievement, it’s only one step in a long Congressional process. The House has yet to pass a budget resolution and the Senate is unlikely to begin work on the Appropriations Bill until September. The good news is that we, in the exchange community, have the rest of the summer to enlist the support of senators who strongly believe international exchange programs should be fully funded because they are essential to our national security and prosperity.
By Ilir Zherka, Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange.