We are Our Best Diplomats

In 2010, the U.S. Fulbright program gave away about 6,000 grants for international study at a cost of roughly $320 million. What did we get for that money? We got soft power, and we can get more by paying attention to the young people that make the Fulbright work.

Most people are only aware of the domestic-to-international aspect of the Fulbright, and in fact, if you asked most college students about the program, the response, in an honest moment, might have something to do with “getting paid to party abroad.” This is an understandable response, since the noble but vague-sounding goal of the entire program is the “promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.” Sounds like partying to me.

Perhaps in an effort to dispel the aura of nebulousness that surrounds the Fulbright program, the State Department conducted a review in 2005 to evaluate its effectiveness. What's funny is that the methodology of the review is pretty open-ended – it largely consists of asking various people if they were happy with their time working abroad and if they learned valuable lessons. Of course they did. This report is trying to dress up the basic lesson that everyone already knows but has a hard time articulating: Our culture as expressed through our most energetic and idealistic young people is a powerful diplomatic tool. The respondents to our feature are proof of this.

It could be said then, that the Fulbright is an investment in our international charisma; our ability to make friends and influence people. What's interesting though, and often unseen, is that our charisma as a nation does not just get supported by special ambassadors working in foreign schools, but also by vast numbers of ordinary Americans each day. 

The Fulbright also provides funds for foreign students to study in the U.S. and when they arrive, they absorb our culture through ordinary people giving them directions, explaining our jokes, and arguing in favor of our values. I hope you won't groan when I say that in a sense, young people, as a class, are all part of the Fulbright program. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said as much when she announced the loosening of visa restrictions for Iranian students. She claimed that the change would alter the ideologies of Iranian students by bringing them into contact with their U.S. counterparts.

The lesson is broader than just exchange programs. People come from all over the world to study in the U.S. and though the number of foreign nationals studying in the U.S. declined after 9/11. It has shot back up under Obama (two really helpful graphics are here and here). The experience of these students will be dictated by actions and policies.

Individual actions are important, but often get overlooked. I've seen international students get treated badly before, and it’s a shame because the smallest interaction can make a difference in the mind of a visitor. Kindness is doubly advisable, as the right thing to do and the right thing for our international position.

On the level of policies, there is of course more that can be done to maximize the energizing impact of our young people included easier visa regulations across the board as well as more funding for the Fulbright in general. In fact, many people have suggested looking to the international labor pool as a way to jumpstart our economy, and the side effects of this approach will be more international political capital as well. Openness really is one of our most powerful assets.

Photo Credit: US Embassy New Zealand