International exchanges advance US interests for the long term
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The U.S. Congress is on the verge of making a decision that could affect America’s strategic interests for decades. The House Appropriations Committee held a hearing last week to consider funding for one of America’s best tools for building support for the United States around the world: Bringing students, teachers, journalists, and rising leaders from around the world to study as well as learn about the United States and democratic values. 

As strong believers in U.S. government programs that are both effective and cost effective, we urge the Congress to protect U.S. national interests for the long term by eschewing the Trump administration’s proposed cut of 50 percent to these programs.

We believe a cut of this magnitude would cede advantage to strategic competitors, lose international market share to foreign universities, and forego important means to shape the strategic landscape for many years to come.  The United States has invested in these programs for decades, across Republican and Democratic administrations, to powerful and lasting effect.

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We make this case as seasoned foreign policy and national security professionals, with more than seventy combined years of experience.  We have worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations, across a wide range of issues related to U.S. national security interests.  Today, we write as heads of organizations with decades of experience promoting exchanges.

International exchange is an important, undervalued, and strategic investment that benefits the United States.  Many of the international students who study in the United States, or other professionals who spend time here through exchange programs, go home to become leaders in their countries.  

These future decision makers become more understanding and supportive of U.S. interests after their time here. Alumni of U.S. international education programs include 565 current or former heads of foreign governments, 82 Nobel Prize winners, and 89 members of the U.S. Congress. Other participants are less famous — but no less consequential. For instance, thousands of teachers trained in the U.S. over the past few decades go on to inform the worldviews of millions of students.  And 94 percent of exchange students from Muslim-majority countries report having a deeper, nuanced, favorable view of American culture after their year in the U.S., according to a State Department survey.

Moreover, international exchange helps instill a commitment to values of free speech, open discourse, human rights, and independent thinking that underpins vibrant democracies.  At a time when democracy is under siege, exposing people to our democratic system creates a global network of ambassadors for democratic institutions. For all the complexities and flaws of our own democratic process, people who are exposed to it are often persuaded by democracy’s attributes.

International exchange is an also excellent return on investment in terms of its economic benefits. Taxpayer funds spent on international education help bring people to the U.S. who buy goods and services. In the 2015-2016 academic year, international students and their families in the U.S. contributed $32.8 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 400,812 jobs. As Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross commented in May when awarding one of the president’s export awards, international education is America’s seventh largest export industry. These economic benefits are widespread: All 50 states and the District of Columbia host exchange participants.

While the United States is currently the most popular destination for international students, our country operates within a fierce global competition for talent.  Many countries recognize the strategic and economic benefits of hosting international students. Countries from Australia to the United Kingdom offer attractive programs at world renowned universities, and China included an international student component in its Belt Road Initiative, which aims to extend Chinese influence. 

Meanwhile, exchanges mean Americans learn about the world and bring that knowledge home.  We should expand not cut these tools that help Americans be more competitive in the world.

All these benefits come for a small price.  The international affairs budget is only 1 percent of the entire federal budget. And of that 1 percent, just .018 percent of the international affairs budget goes to U.S. Department of State sponsored international exchanges.

America should not cede its position as a world leader in international educational exchange.  The proposed reductions would yield little in terms of reducing the federal budget, but would carry a heavy cost to the United States.  We urge the House and Senate to support federal funding for international education exchanges — or endanger a strategic asset that other countries will quickly seize. 

Esther Brimmer is executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.  She was assistant secretary of State for International Organizations from 2009-2013.

Lorne Craner is president of American Councils for International Education and previously president of the International Republican Institute and assistant secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor from 2001-2004.

Kristin Lord is president and CEO of IREX, a global development and education nonprofit. She served as special advisor to the under secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs from 2005-2006 and EVP and acting president of the U.S. Institute of Peace from 2014-2016.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.