In December, the U.S. State Department announced a drastic 50 percent funding cut for the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange program (CBYX), the most enduring and important reciprocal exchange program between the United States and Germany, our most vital ally in Europe.  At a time when our two countries need to work together more closely on numerous transatlantic and global issues, slashing this successful program is the wrong decision for German-American relations. It sends a distinct message to the German government and the German people that the U.S. no longer values and appreciates this critical partnership.

Over the past year, and quite intensely in the last few weeks, Germany and the U.S. have been working in concert with one another to resolve and end the conflict in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, Chancellor Merkel met with President Obama to hold talks on this issue, as well as other key topics, such as battling violent extremism and ISIL in the Middle East. And again last week, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s Foreign Minister, was in Washington for meetings with American officials. On all of these issues, Germany is the lynchpin. As Germany goes, so does Europe. Given this backdrop, the decision to cut this valuable and symbolic program simply does not make sense.

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Inaugurated in 1983 by a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress and the German Bundestag, CBYX was created to strengthen ties between Germany and the United States through citizen diplomacy. The program is funded by both governments and annually supports the 1-to-1 exchange of 700 young Germans and Americans. More than 23,000 high school students and young professionals from both countries have had the opportunity to live, study and intern in each other’s country, helping prepare them for success in an increasingly global world and greatly strengthening the ties between our two countries.

Today, CBYX remains crucial to building relationships amongst our young people and citizens, especially at a time when opinion surveys demonstrate that the German public is increasingly skeptical of the United States. As Ambassadors in Germany, we met regularly with participants, who come from an extremely diverse range of socio-economic, ethnic, educational, and regional backgrounds. We personally witnessed the enormous impact this program had on their worldview, their perspectives on the United States and on their personal and professional development. The legacy of one’s time as a diplomat is measured by how well we “set the table” for tomorrow, by how deeply we help youth understand the ongoing relevance of the transatlantic bridge. They are tomorrow’s leaders and the investment in their future must be our highest priority.

Alumni from CBYX have gone on to build successful careers in politics, such as German participant Anna Lührmann who became the youngest-ever member of the German Bundestag in 2002. Others have become staffers in Congress, diplomats in the German Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department, and managers and leaders in business, working for German and American companies in their respective countries and helping expand business ties and job creation.

With the announcement of the funding cuts, many voices have called for the restoration of funding in order to preserve CBYX. Last year, we, along with four other former U.S. and German Ambassadors, sent a letter to Members of Congress and senior officials at the State Department including Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryCongress must press Qatar for highlighting hate preacher Egypt’s death squads and America's deafening silence With help from US, transformative change in Iran is within reach MORE, stressing the importance of maintaining the program’s current funding and participant levels. This past December, a bi-partisan group of Congressional representatives in the House German-American Caucus contacted Secretary Kerry stating that they “believe reductions would have an adverse effect upon bilateral relations.” In a December 2014 report, the U.S. Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy, which appraises U.S. Government activities related to improving international understanding, specifically recommends restoring funding to CBYX in FY2016 and beyond. And CBYX alumni have created an online #saveCBYX petition which since mid-January has received over 19,000 signatures – a clear sign of the support and impact this program has had on their lives.

The transatlantic alliance between Germany and the United States – on issues related to eastern Europe, trade and investment, stability in financial markets, international security and countering violent extremism, the environment and energy, and many others – contributes not only significant benefits to our own citizens, but also to the world community. On many levels, Germany is now the most important strategic partner of the United States. Germany is the agenda-setter for Europe and an ally on which the United States will increasingly depend in the years ahead. The decision to cut CBYX funding runs contrary to U.S interests. The U.S. State Department and Congress should restore funding to this vital public diplomacy program between our two countries. The CBYX mission to maintain and improve the transatlantic relationship continues to be relevant today, now more than ever.

Burt was U.S ambassador to Germany, 1985-1989; Kimmitt was U.S. ambassador to Germany, 1991-1993; Kornblum was U.S. ambassador to Germany, 1997-2001; Timken was U.S. ambassador to Germany, 2005-2008; and Murphy was U.S. ambassador to Germany, 2009-2013.