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US cuts to Fulbright fellowship budget are disappointing concession to anti-intellectualism

The Obama administration is pursuing a new approach to public diplomacy that stands to weaken US ties abroad — and delivers its most profound blow to the trans-Atlantic relationship, writes Megan Doherty.

In March, the administration proposed a 35% cut to the Fulbright fellowship program, taking its budget from US$46.2 to US$30 billion. Fulbright is the US government’s flagship international exchange programme that sends Americans abroad and brings foreign researchers and practitioners to the United States. Cuts to Fulbright come alongside the expansion of shorter programmes that offer less substantive immersion for foreigners, neglect Americans, and shift the diplomatic lens away from Europe during a period that requires greater — not less — trans-Atlantic cooperation.

Advocates of the Fulbright programme celebrate its ideals of cross-cultural understanding and its potential as a soft power tool: the fact that it sends veritable cultural diplomats abroad at relatively little expense as missionaries of liberal humanism. As Senator J. William Fulbright, the programme’s founder, said in 1945, “a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion…increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and fellowship.” Yet this same humanistic rhetoric that proliferated in the post-World War II era also typified post-World War I internationalism, from the League of Nations through to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbour Policy of the 1930s. Its resurrection in the post-1945 period led not just to Fulbright, but to an array of programmes born of the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act. These included the State Department’s International Visitors Programmes, citizen exchange programmes, and artistic and cultural exchanges — all forms of what became known as “public diplomacy,” designed to meet diplomatic objectives through people and goodwill instead of the brute power of the state.

Fulbright’s real innovation — which stands to be lost in budget cuts and shifts to new programmes — lies in its structure. Many Fulbright awards are funded and administered by the United States in partnership with other nations. While Fulbright operates two-way exchange programs with 155 countries, in 50 countries Fulbright Commissions administer the programme. Their budgets come from both the US Department of State and the governments in-country, as well as private charitable donations. Fulbright thus represents the world’s largest multilateral investment in public diplomacy.

Twenty-four of the 50 extant Fulbright Commissions are in Europe. With European countries as the biggest co-investors in the programme, Fulbright is a cornerstone of trans-Atlantic public diplomacy. But as European students increasingly opt to study around Europe instead of the United States through programs like Erasmus, a shrinking Fulbright programme could deliver an untimely blow to trans-Atlantic relations.

The programmes taking Fulbright’s place lack this multilateral dimension. As the administration cut the Fulbright budget, it increased overall funding for educational and cultural exchange programs by 1.6%. New funding includes US$20 million allocated to a Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), announced in 2010 as the president’s key international exchange; $10 million for the Young South-East Asian Leaders Initiative; and $2.5 million for the Fulbright University Vietnam. These new initiatives aim to offer responsive programming better poised to create rapid-response “on demand” programmes. That is, to provide immersion for people in regions of strategic importance to the United States that can be changed as priorities shift.

Responsive leadership development with an eye to the changing demographics shaping the next generation is laudable. But these programmes are shorter, offering six weeks of immersion instead of the Fulbright’s typical academic year. They favour immersion inside the Washington, DC beltway, offering little exposure to the rest of the United States. These new programs also offer one-way exchanges, funded solely by the US government and bring African and South-East Asian youth to the United States without sending Americans the other way. To introduce such programmes at the expense of longer-term programmes such as Fulbright, without investing in equal exposure abroad for Americans, represents a disappointing concession to the anti-intellectualism that pervades some corners of US politics.

Truly meaningful international exchange must offer deep and comprehensive exposure, involve equal investment or participation on both sides, and provide long-term learning opportunities. If Fulbright continues to shrink, so too might rigorous, substantive ties between the next generation of US and European leaders — a less than ideal move at a moment that requires active trans-Atlantic engagement more than ever.

Megan Doherty is a Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Leadership Initiatives. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series.


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