Opinion Articles

Opinion pieces by Alliance staff.

By Mark Overmann 

Speaking at the Alliance Annual Conference in October, Scott Weinhold, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), gave us a strong clue as to where ECA’s focus will be in the coming year.  

PDAS Weinhold drew attention to the Biden Administration’s recently-released National Security Strategy. This strategy, he noted, will act as “a guiding document for ECA priorities.”

The strategy is broad ranging, touching on an array of U.S. foreign policy and “national power” elements, from diplomacy to defense, development to intelligence. There are three key elements of the strategy that jump out as most related to, and most important for the growth of, international exchange programs: 

1. Alliances are our most important asset.
“Our alliances and partnerships around the world are our most important strategic asset,” says the Biden strategy, “and an indispensable element of contributing to international peace and security” (p. 11). 

The United States is stronger as a nation, the strategy argues, when we:
 – Seek mutually beneficial cooperation;
 – Prioritize affirmative engagement with others; and
 – Place a premium on growing the connective tissue” (p. 11).

The Administration (and Congress) should recognize that they have a huge head start on this goal via ECA programs. If they want “to grow the connective tissue” for stronger alliances, look no further – that’s what we who administer exchanges do every day. 

Exchange programs are the bedrock of strong international alliances and partnerships. Exchanges build and nourish the personal relationships and professional partnerships that lead to larger scale alliances and long-lasting collaborative activity.  

2. There is no “bright line” between foreign and domestic policy.
 “We have broken down the dividing line between foreign policy and domestic policy,” the Biden strategy asserts (p. 11).

Rafik Mansour, ECA’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, built on this idea at the Alliance Conference, highlighting the strong domestic dimension of ECA programs. He noted that 95% of the ECA budget is spent on Americans or in the U.S. 

“This makes ECA actually one of the most domestically focused bureaus” at the Department of State, Mansour said. 

DAS Mansour’s point is an important one. An exchange program’s fundamental reason for being is international engagement – so why the focus on domestic applicability? The Biden strategy answers this by putting forward a circular, self-reinforcing idea of engagement. 

First, our success abroad is, in large part, determined by our strength at home. Do Americans have the skills needed to succeed in a 21st century, interconnected world? If we don’t make the necessary investments to ensure we do, then we fall behind. 

Second, our success at home – making life “better, safer, and fairer” (p. 14) – is dependent on our ability to proactively shape the international order to our interests and values. 

Once again, look no further than exchange programs to achieve these goals. 

First, exchanges are a strong investment in American people and communities. The most obvious example is by providing opportunities for Americans to go abroad. Living, studying, and working in other countries is the best way to build the skills needed to succeed in an interconnected world. 

In addition, Americans are intimately engaged with international exchange right in their home communities. American families, universities, businesses, local governments, and more act as hosts for hundreds of thousands of international participants every year. Through these interactions, American citizens grow in their knowledge of the world and their ability to fluently interact with it. Languages are learned, ideas are shared, business partnerships are forged. This type of skill building done at home provides strength for success out in the world. 

Second, international participants who come to the U.S. are crucial in the goal of projecting influence into the world. Whether they are studying, working, researching, or engaging in the arts, exchange participants in the U.S. meet real people and experience real life. They share their ideas and gain new ideas, create new personal relationships, and forge new business partnerships. Then they take all of this home where it co-mingles into their personal and professional lives. 

3. International collaboration must focus on the most important challenges of our time.
“To solve the toughest problems the world faces, we need to produce dramatically greater levels of cooperation,” the Biden strategy says (p. 16). 

Our actions to build alliances and cooperation should also be utilized to address specific and serious problems. The strategy calls out the climate crisis as “the existential challenge of our time” (p. 27).  It also notes other key areas for focus, including global health systems, pandemics, and vaccine development; misinformation and disinformation; food insecurity; and energy security.

The opportunity for exchange programs, then, is to continue to grow our offerings of specifically tailored programs that address these areas. How can we create new programs that work on these problems? How can we tailor existing programs to address these crucial challenges? The intentionality of our programming will be the challenge and opportunity of the coming years. 

In the end, one phrase encapsulates the guiding philosophy of Biden’s national security strategy: “We can do none of this alone.”