Sending a Bunch of Fulbright Scholars Overseas Is Not 'Soft Diplomacy.'

But there are better reasons not to axe the program

by Eve Fairbanks | March 28, 2014

photo credit: Abid Katib/Getty Images

The Fulbright program is under the knife again. There's a long and incredibly mistaken tradition of dumping on America's flagship international educational-exchange program, which sends 8,000 Americans and foreigners a year to each other’s countries to study things like physics and poetry in a completely different environment. The program started in the post-World War II peace-promoting glow; in the '50s, Joe McCarthy freaked out about it and tried to defund it, thundering that it was importing communism into the country; in the '80s Ronald Reagan sought to halve it, failing to see its value to the spirit of the country in a material age. Now President Obama has proposed a 13 percent cut to its budget, which will force major downgrades to the number of available grants, which are already extremely competitive to get.

The program is an easy target for budget cuts because its value has never been entirely quantifiable. Those who defend it from the reapers always suggest its main purpose is to provide a relatively cheap mechanism for "soft diplomacy." Slate's Rebecca Schulman made just this argument on Thursday—that the Fulbright grantees who go abroad are "truly" diplomats (!) whose "stellar example" overseas makes their host countries love America and thereby gets foreigners "to want the outcomes that [we] want." Senator J. William Fulbright did have "soft diplomacy" in mind when he proposed the program in the '40s. A fantastic Boston Globe story traces the Fulbright program’s ambiguous conception as "as a budget-priced megaphone to transmit American ideas to the world." Fulbright's idea—suffused with America's new "towering self-confidence in its new role as global superpower"—was that his happy band of grantees would prove to their host nations how fabulous Americans and American ideals are.

Despite the program’s origins, making this argument now is a stretch, frankly—not always so believable, and a workaround of the deeper, better justification. In fact, it's never been particularly obvious that Fulbrighters impact their host countries in such a large, measurable way. They're only there for nine months, which isn't very long to wow a nation. I had a Fulbright to South Africa in 2011, and I certainly never felt I was doing diplomacy. Actually, I had many discussions with my South African friends about my frustration with elements of American politics, as I suspect many Fulbrighters do, because Fulbrighters are the kind of people who want to get out of America for a time. I fear my impact, such as it was, may have actually been to de-idealize American politics and culture in a community where a number of lower-class bars and clothing shops are optimistically named "Obama,” and the line for the first Burger King to open in the country stretched several city blocks. At any rate, I was far too busy immersing myself in the new culture of my host country, to do much public megaphoning for American ideas.

And that’s the point of the Fulbright program. It was enormously educational—and just as educational about America as it was about my host country, as I’ll explain below. It’s an education program, as its official title claims, not a cloaked diplomacy program going by another name. That’s its great value, even if, as with so many lasting institutions, it started with a different goal in mind. The Fulbright is a worthy budget item because of the way it changes the Americans to whom it awards its grants, making them more valuable citizens of their own country.

First of all, living abroad awakens a kind of second soul in you. We are very different people in different environments, it turns out, and I think every Fulbrighter has experienced the thrill of witnessing a dramatically different self emerge in their new country, along with the other thrill of understanding a strange society. Living overseas gives grantees more dimensions, ultimately making them more multidimensional American citizens. Along with acquiring a specific understanding of a foreign culture, I often find that those who’ve lived abroad have acquired through it a more general empathy with human difference, having both seen that difference around them and experienced it within themselves when they moved.

I had a roommate once, an inveterate traveler, who said “the most significant part of travel is the return home,” and this is also deeply true. Living abroad makes us see our own country totally differently. We start to see it comparatively. It teaches us that so many aspects of American society we take for granted as inevitable are actually not inevitable ways for a society to be organized. Some things in America we come to value more; others we suddenly realize we want to change.

Living abroad certainly gave me—perhaps paradoxically—more of a sense of responsibility to be an active American citizen and engage with my country, because when I saw it from a distance I saw it as a distinct and valuable entity, a potential partner in a quest to live more justly, rather than just the place where I happened to breathe the air. (I think astronauts often experience the same thing when they go into space: They love the earth more having glimpsed it as a distant, vulnerable orb.) My occasional homesickness in South Africa made me treasure the society I had left behind in a way I'd never treasured it while I lived there. It just makes good American citizens, to send them overseas to see and spend time in another land.

And that is measurable. More Fulbrighters have won Nobel Prizes than the graduates of any other award program, reflecting, I think, the deepening of the spirit that comes with an overseas experience. (Not all of these are Americans—the Fulbright program also supports foreigners studying in the U.S.—but the same principle applies to their achievements.) There are 53 Nobel laureates and 80 Pulitzer Prize winners among Fulbright alumni. Many have gone on to be politicians and, in particular, politically-engaged economists: Joseph Stiglitz, Peter Diamond, Milton Friedman, and Oliver Williamson were all Fulbrighters.

I’m particularly interested in the strong representation of Fulbright alumni in literature: Jonathan Franzen, John Updike, Eudora Welty, James Wright, Charles Simic, and Sylvia Plath, among many others. Perhaps that has to do with the freedom and sustained focus the Fulbright allows. As Schulman points out, the Fulbright stipend is not large—I lived on tuna melts—but it does afford a sense of liberty and a temporary reprieve from quick publishing deadlines. My writing grant enabled me to spend nine months following a single young black South African farmer who’d come from poverty to aspire to be an agricultural kingpin in the model of white farming barons past. I learned so much from this sustained glimpse into one person’s effort to overcome the legacies of apartheid, and I was able to withhold these insights for a book rather than dribbling them out into articles. My fellow grantees benefited from the same sustained focus: One researched and wrote a biography of an overlooked but incredibly fascinating black journalist; another helped midwife this amazing photography series of post-apartheid South Africans. This kind of support for focus in today’s publishing environment is so needed.

In the end, the Fulbright program is an investment in the people who get the grants, not primarily in our reputation in the places they go to. And that, to me, is the more powerful argument for lasting investment in it: We already spend a ton projecting our power overseas. Don’t we need to spend more creating good citizens?

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