Ilir Zherka, thehill.com
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The Trump administration has proposed cuts in FY18 of 28 percent to the State Department, with much deeper cuts likely to the Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs, and a significant narrowing of the types of exchange programs our country supports. If enacted into law, these combined changes would greatly harm our nation’s public diplomacy efforts and, ultimately, our national security and economy.
Exchange programs enhance U.S. national security and prosperity by building productive partnerships, mutual understanding, and personal connections that help us address critical global issues including strengthening the world economy and combating terrorism. The cost of these programs is remarkably low, at considerably less than 1 percent of the federal budget.
Moreover, according to the State Department, well over 90 percent all of the funds appropriated for exchanges are spent either in the United States or on American citizens who travel overseas. U.S. airlines, academic institutions, hotels, and small businesses in communities throughout the nation benefit from dollars spent by or on behalf of exchange participants. These investments in turn leverage significant funding by host universities, families, localities, and foreign governments.
International exchanges also create a welcoming environment for over a million international students to study in the U.S. In 2015, these students added more than $32 billion dollars to our economy and supported over 400,000 U.S. jobs. When our country is perceived as less welcoming, however, that can have a negative impact. Already, over 40 percent of universities are reporting that applications from international students are down this year. Supporting exchange programs has the added benefit of sending a message to students worldwide that we welcome them here.
To be effective, U.S. funding for exchange programs should be balanced and strategic by reaching a range of people from many different countries. The administration’s budget outline seems to focus primarily on academic exchanges. Those programs are vitally important. Our country is very well served, however, by also supporting initiatives to discover and cultivate emerging leaders, language and area studies programs that prepare U.S. citizens for the workforce, capacity development for women, youth engagement, exchanges of cultural and artistic expression, interactions with international athletes, and virtual exchanges that connect people who are unable to travel.
This comprehensive approach to exchanges has been very effective in advancing our nation’s strategic interests. In fact, the State Department reports that one in three current world leaders have been on an exchange program in the United States. In another State Department study, 92 percent of exchange participants from Muslim majority countries reported having a more favorable view of the United States. These programs make friends for the U.S. and expand our nation’s ability to be effective and do business in the world.
Presidents from both parties have understood the value of exchanges. President Reagan created the International Youth Exchange Initiative during the Cold War. President George W. Bush used exchange programs to promote greater understanding between the U.S. and Muslim-majority countries after the tragic events of 9/11. President Obama established initiatives to develop youth leadership in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. They each understood that exchanges help strengthen multilateral economic and social ties to the next generation of leaders who are likely to always think of the U.S. as a friend and second home.
President Trump has suggested that our nation pursue policies that promote our national interests. Supporting international exchange programs is such a policy. When we invest in international exchanges, we not only support our national security, we also strengthen our economy, sustain diplomatic relations, and expand opportunities for innovation and global collaboration.
Ilir Zherka is executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange.