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When education is an ignored national security matter

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Every day, our newsfeeds quickly fill up with a dizzying array of global challenges. After the tragic events of 9/11 and the many following crises, we learned quickly that Americans—and American experts—must be equipped to analyze and process what is happening in the world around us while simultaneously making the best decisions for our national and economic security.

Whether it is the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, tensions in the South China Sea, the threat of a nuclear-capable North Korea, or disunity in the European Union, all issues absolutely demand a nuanced and well informed understanding of its various dimensions—geopolitical, economic, historic, military, and cultural. This is where U.S. analysts and linguists come in to shed light on these dimensions as well as to relay complex data, accurately contextualized, across the decision making apparatus and often with allies.

{mosads}Shrouded by the dangers of the Cold War, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 gave birth to the Department of Education’s Title VI programs and, later in 1961, the Fulbright-Hays programs as part of the Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act. These programs helped to address America’s need to train experts in world areas and less commonly taught languages—such as Arabic, Mandarin, Farsi, and Urdu. Since their inception, these programs have supported some of America’s finest and most innovative colleges and universities in training countless soon-to-be military personnel, diplomats, intelligence experts, changemakers in the development world, regional and country experts, as well as men and women in international business.

However, the FY18 Trump administration budget completely eliminates the Title VI and Fulbright-Hays programs without any regard for America’s human capital readiness for future global crises or recognition of the needs of our businesses to have a cadre of experts to draw from as they expand into new markets.

Recent disease outbreaks such as Ebola, Zika, the MERS and SARS viruses could have all been on U.S. shores much sooner and wreaked much more havoc had our public health personnel not had the training and global perspective to understand other geographies, other people and cultures, and movement within communities. The knowledgeable, effective responses to these outbreaks stand as a testament to the need for discipline-specific training with an international perspective and expertise amongst our men and women.

It’s nearly impossible to predict where the next conflict will emerge or which emerging market will necessitate American business people with regional knowledge and linguistic capability to be successful. Yet, it is clear that a continued lack of investment will result in a generational atrophy that would take the nation decades to rebuild—leaving America extremely vulnerable at a time when other nations are making significant investments in international studies and world area expertise. Recent reports indicate that China has been bolstering its capacity significantly in African languages, which is a wise investment given their strategic and commercial interest in the continent. Similarly, young people in Pakistan have been learning Mandarin at exponential rates.

It’s no surprise that many national security experts have reported a lack of well trained linguists and analysts who can understand challenges posed by Russia’s re-emergence as a global player, the ongoing tumult in the Middle East, or Asia’s continued evolution and balance of power.  In fact, in a December 2015 article in the Washington Post, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) suggested that the United States was “surprised at every turn” during the crisis in Crimea. Meanwhile, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) described our infrastructure to train experts as having fallen to “atrophy.”

Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, was also clear in his description of the situation: “Trying to figure out decision-making in Russia on foreign policy requires a great deal of qualitative depth…and that requires new investment and knowledge.” He continued, “We’re going to disagree with the Kremlin and with the Russians on certain issues over time, but what we can’t have is disagreements based on misperception and bad information.”

In an uncertain world, it is abundantly clear that no one knows which world region will pose the next challenge to our shared security or be the next emerging market opportunity. Our men and women must be trained to understand, analyze, and act on tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities when they occur, wherever they may occur—and their academic training is a critical piece of this.

Congress must show bipartisan leadership in keeping America prepared with the tools it needs to tackle the challenges to come. Leaving our nation unprepared should never be a partisan issue. Bipartisan investment during the Cold War led to the development of a cadre of experts that helped our nation avert disaster—and now the challenges of the 21st century require such a renewed and steadfast commitment.

Mohamed Abdel-Kader is a Security Fellow with Truman National Security Project and former Deputy Assistant Secretary for International & Foreign Language Education. Views expressed are his own.

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

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