International Education: The Neglected Dimension of Public Diplomacy


Last updated 2008

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The next president of the United States will face foreign policy and national security challenges as daunting as any since the beginning of the Cold War. To address these challenges effectively, he will have to break out of the old policy constructs, avoid the shallow rhetoric that masquerades as policy, transcend political divides that do not reflect today's realities, and lead Americans to new approaches that advance American interests in the 21st century.

Public Diplomacy Quote Among the most fundamental of these challenges is the need to restore America's international legitimacy — to address the pervasive perception in the world that America's interests, as America conceives of and pursues those interests today, no longer reflect what the founders referred to as a decent respect for the opinions of mankind. The very source of U.S. international legitimacy—the idea that America, uniquely among nations, aligns its interests with the aspirations of the world's people—has somehow become thought of in much of this country's political discourse as a quaint anachronism, a luxury that we cannot afford in the age of global terror. The vision that propelled the creators of the post-World War II international order – that America's security lay in a secure world where people were free to pursue their aspirations for themselves and for their children – has somehow come to be thought of as too "soft." If the United States is to restore its international legitimacy, our political leadership will need to rediscover—and lead us to rededicate ourselves to—the eternal foundations of this nation that produced that legitimacy in the first place.

In the public dialogue of the past few years, the means for addressing this issue have tended to be lumped under the rubric of "public diplomacy." This is a very imprecise term, and no two parties to any conversation about it seem to share the same concept of what it means. However one defines public diplomacy, there is a widespread recognition, which we share, that the United States is doing poorly at it, and there have been at least a dozen proposals (and still counting) for reorganizing the public diplomacy function within or outside of the U.S. government. Although we agree that the abolition of the United States Information Agency and the incorporation of its functions into the State Department was a mistake that needs to be rectified, and we support the reorganization efforts, we do not believe that the dialogue would be served by our adding yet another government reorganization proposal to the mix.

Public Diplomacy Quote Our purpose is to drill down beneath that level, and begin where all good public diplomacy must start: with the creation of a better foundation for understanding. Our focus is on what will need to be done, under any reorganization scheme, to make the international education and exchange part of public diplomacy work.

At the heart of public diplomacy, in our view—and essential to the success of the rest of it—is the critical task of building, conducting, and sustaining the long-term relationships through which the world most fundamentally "knows" Americans and forms its core assumptions about what America "is." From the creation of the Fulbright Program to the founding of the Peace Corps, the post-World War II generation pursued these relationships as a conscious matter of national policy—a way of aligning America's interests with those of the world and investing in a more peaceful world in which the United States could be secure. We need to embrace that vision again as we confront a new era of global connectedness and global challenges.

Many of our current political leaders have failed to grasp fully that although much changed on September 11, 2001, much did not. Some things that were true before 9/11 are still true today. Among them are that the United States, for all our power, cannot be secure in a world that does not trust us and that resents and resists our leadership; that the United States, as any state, needs friends and allies; and that the United States cannot be effective in, much less lead, a world that it neither listens to nor understands. We know from polling data that Americans "get" this at some level. It is the task of the next generation of leadership to reassure Americans that these fundamental principles are just as valid today as they ever were.

International education forms the foundation for addressing these challenges, and it is an indispensable component of the revived public diplomacy that must begin to rebuild America's global reputation. Yet the United States today lacks the policy instruments to realize international education's potential. It is time, as a nation, to be purposeful about international education—to employ it consciously, in a coordinated manner, as one of the tools in the national toolkit for engaging with the world in pursuit of the objectives that we share with the world's people. It is through international education that we establish a lasting foundation for dialogue and partnership with the rest of the world and create the conditions for lasting global peace, security, and well-being.

Public Diplomacy Quote We strongly support the recommendation of the CSIS Commission on Smart Power, that "an effective public diplomacy must include exchanges of ideas, peoples, and information through person-to-person educational and cultural exchanges…." As the commission said, "We must strengthen and expand America's study abroad programs," and "the next administration should make it a priority to increase the number of international students coming to the United States to study and do research…." Poll after poll—including our own nonpartisan polling—has demonstrated very high levels of public support for these measures, and high public understanding that future generations will require international skills.

The single most important factor that has been lacking for such an effort to succeed is focused leadership in the White House. We call on the next president to announce a major international education initiative designed explicitly to foster an America that knows, understands, and is able to communicate with the world, and to strengthen the relationships through which the American people and the world's people can relate to, interact with, and understand each other.

This initiative should have three objectives:

  1. The internationalization of higher education in the United States, centered on a national program to establish study abroad as an integral part of U.S undergraduate education
  2. The restoration of America's status as a magnet for international students and scholars, the next generation of foreign leaders, teachers, and innovators
  3. The substantial strengthening of international exchange and volunteer-service programs to foster a long-term reservoir of good will for our nation.

Continue to the Internationalizing U.S. Education section