Jeffrey Renz: Restore, increase international exchange funding

2014-07-17T00:00:00Z 2014-07-18T15:29:04Z Jeffrey Renz: Restore, increase international exchange fundingBy JEFFREY T. RENZ The Billings Gazette
July 17, 2014 12:00 am  • 

In June, the United States Senate Appropriations Committee rejected the Obama Administration’s proposed cuts to the Fulbright Program and endorsed a small increase to that budget. Having just returned from a Fulbright year in Georgia, a former Soviet Republic, I understand how important it is to fund not only the Fulbright program, but all foreign exchange programs.

If our goal is to expand democracy in the world, to build civil society, and protect human rights, then there are two ways to do it. The first is through “hard power.” Examples of “hard power” include Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither has been a resounding success. The second way is through “soft power.” The examples include Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Kyrgyzstan, and others. Our exchange programs brought high school, college, and post-graduate students, scholars, government officials, and business people from these and other countries to the United States. We send American students, graduates, scholars, and others abroad.

Exchange programs cost far less than extensions of hard power. In 2013, our costs for Iraq alone were $2.7 billion. The proposed Fulbright appropriation, which covers over 125 countries, is $237 million.

The “bang for the buck” is significant. Consider this: the Republic of Georgia, where I served as a Fulbright Scholar, recently went through its first peaceful transfer of power to the opposition party following transparent, fair and honest elections. It is no coincidence that nearly half of the officials in Georgia’s government and its parliament were beneficiaries of exchanges with the United States. The former President, who handed over power peacefully and constructively, was a Muskie Fellow at Columbia University. He returned and revolutionized Georgia’s government, eliminated corruption, built infrastructure, and, in the process, frustrated the Russians.

We benefit. Georgia is neither a member of NATO nor the European Union. Nevertheless a brigade of Georgian soldiers has been fighting, and its soldiers have been giving their lives, next to Americans in Afghanistan.

I remember the comment of a young Georgian in 2005. He said, “The difference between Russia and the United States is this: When Russia offers help, they expect something in return. When the United States helps, there is no such expectation.” His gratitude and commitment to emulate American values made me proud to be an American.

Exchange programs do not proselytize liberal or conservative viewpoints. In May I gave a speech to Georgia’s Model United Nations program. One student asked me about legislation pending before the Georgian Parliament that would ban discrimination on the basis of, among other things, sexual orientation.

“What would you recommend?” he asked.

This, I responded, was a Georgian decision. Georgia is very conservative, relative to the United States, on issues of homosexuality and pre-marital sex. Exchange scholars realize that we cannot impose social values on cultures whose traditions are millennia older than ours and that these societies must find their own way, in their own way.

And I am not speaking only of academic exchanges. The head of one of Georgia’s largest internet service providers is a Humphrey fellow. The Humphrey program brings businesspeople and professionals to the United States to study for one year.

This year Georgia will send five Fulbright Scholars, 45 Future Leader Exchange (high school) students, and two global undergraduate exchange students, and five Fulbright graduate students to the United States to study. But this may change. Future budgets threaten to reduce those numbers and reduce the duration of their stay in the United States. The Muskie program, which brought master’s-level students to complete their studies in the United States, has been cancelled.

So what makes more sense? Spend $2.7 billion in one country only to see it dissolve into civil war? Or spend $237 million in over 100 countries with much better results? It’s an easy call. Our congressional delegation should restore the Muskie program and support increased funding for international exchanges.

Renz is a clincial professor of law at the University of Montana’s School of Law. He is also a member of the faculty for the Central and Southwest Asia Studies Center. He was a Fulbright Scholar at the Free University of Tbilisi in 2013-2014.

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