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Column: Fulbright Scholars Are a Diplomatic Bargain Worth Saving

St. Louis

Each year, a few thousand high-achieving American and international students succeed in the rigorous, hypercompetitive application process for a Fulbright grant, after which they often go on to great things. Among the 325,000 alumni of the program are John Hope Franklin, John Lewis Gaddis, Renee Fleming, Daniel Liebeskind, 10 members of Congress, 18 heads of state, and dozens of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners. (Of course, sometimes a ne’er-do-well gets through: I had a Fulbright to Austria back in 2008.)

Now, though, our “flagship international educational exchange program” is being threatened with an unprecedented 13 percent budget cut — $30 million, chiseled from the president’s current proposed State Department budget of $46.2 billion. I’m sure that $30 million will be well allocated elsewhere in the federal government — it’ll probably buy two and a half drones — but it robs scholars of a serious source of serious international research and robs the United States of one of its greatest, most lasting, and cheapest diplomacy bargains.

Sure, you might think that Fulbrighters are spoiled little children, just getting a bonus on Daddy’s allowance to cavort around on a glorified vacation — but that’s a grave misconception. The State Department and the host countries are not going to just give some kid $20,000 because he thinks South Korea is, like, awesome. The program supports real academic research by the brightest American and international scholars. The application process involves not just a well-articulated and feasible project proposal, along with a thorough audit of academic accomplishments. To even have her application submitted (which institutions do on students’ behalf), an applicant must first pass an internal review. I’ve been on a selection committee, and the assessment process is brutal. Only the tippy-top have a chance of making it through the internal review, past State, and all the way to the host country.

The program might seem superfluous in an era of continuing austerity, but I assure you it is not. The United States’ share of one Fulbright stipend is quite a bit less than your average diplomat’s salary. (My stipend in 2008 was $1,655 a month, just enough to be hungry and cold all the time in Vienna without actually starving or freezing to death.) And the diplomat comparison is apt, because that’s what Fulbright scholars truly are. Sometimes the soft power of cultural and educational exchange is more effective than official diplomacy, because it involves — quite unlike, say, an ambassador’s cloistered life and questionable commitment to cultural exchange — a demonstrated interest in the host culture, full cultural immersion, and actual personal connection with locals. It’s for this reason that now is the absolute wrong time to cut the Fulbright program.

In 1945, Sen. J. William Fulbright introduced a bill that would create a new program with the goal of increasing mutual understanding between cultures. He wanted to bring “a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.” In other words, so that something as horrific as World War II could never happen again. If, he reasoned, Germans, Japanese and American people could just get to know each other and exchange crucial knowledge, they’d be far less likely to support blowing their new friends to Kingdom Come if the opportunity arose again.

And so the Fulbright program was born: We’d send our best and brightest people all around the world, and other countries would send theirs here. And indeed, the program is an international endeavor — as Inside Higher Ed pointed out last week, what most people don’t know is that participating foreign governments co-fund the program, together with private sources, to the tune of about $100 million a year. Sometimes they even put in more money than we do — my own grant, for example, was funded 100 percent by the Austrian government.

In a statistics-stuffed 19-page open letter in defense of the program, Lonnie Johnson — who heads the Austrian Fulbright Commission, and to whom I technically reported during my time in Vienna — emphasizes the Fulbright program’s greatest asset: The “soft power,” as Harvard’s Joseph Nye has put it, of “getting others to want the outcomes that you want,” not by coercive means, but by presenting a stellar example and making friends.

As tensions escalate with countries that were once touchy allies, what we need are more Fulbright grantees in the world, not fewer. Sure, $30 million seems like a lot of money — but it’s actually 0.06 percent of the proposed total State budget. I just re-allocated 0.06 percent of my budget toward Jelly Bellys; there’s got to be some wiggle room.

So what can we do? Yussi Pick, an Austrian Fulbright alumnus I know from the network, has started a SaveFulbright initiative, which currently has upward of 11,000 signatures. Perhaps his group, and this petition, will be able to exercise some “soft power” over Congress, and it will think twice about sacrificing America’s biggest diplomacy bargain.

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.