Now More Than Ever: the Fulbright Program in times of strained relations

The Fulbright Program with China and Hong Kong has been suspended, as part of an executive order on 14 July. Tucked away under section 3 (i), he tells heads of relevant agencies to “take steps to terminate the Fulbright exchange program with regard to China and Hong Kong with respect to future exchanges for participants traveling both from and to China or Hong Kong.”

This is not the first time a Fulbright exchange program has been suspended–it’s not even the first time that the US-China program has been suspended–but to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a US president has used an executive order to suspend Fulbright exchanges.

In the past, exchanges have usually been suspended due to war. The Korean War broke out less than two months after an exchange agreement was signed, and the program was suspended before any exchanges had taken place. The Iran Fulbright Program was suspended from 1953-57 due to a lack of funding, rather than a political cause–that came later, in 1979, when the Iran program was suspended due to the Islamic revolution. The first suspension with China also came with a revolution, in 1949. In 1989, China suspended Fulbright exchanges following the Tiananmen Square incident (the former CAO in China at the time, Michael McCarry, wrote about the contrast between that suspension and the current one here on the PDC blog). Trump’s decision to end the US-China Fulbright Program right now doesn’t fit with any of these precedents.

It also doesn’t fit with the apparent mission of this executive order, which was to end preferential treatment of Hong Kong over mainland China (the argument being that it’s no longer sufficiently autonomous to warrant that difference in treatment). Other points in the text align with that purpose–revoking license exemptions for exports, for example–but this does not. It simply ends the Fulbright Program for both China and Hong Kong, rather than, for instance, removing special provisions for applicants to/from Hong Kong (if they had existed). It doesn’t fit, which makes it just seem like a knee-jerk reaction–and therefore typical of Trump’s clumsy foreign policy style.

“The latest move by the White House seems to confirm a transactional view toward U.S.-China relations, in which the Trump administration is willing to sacrifice a source of long-term relationship and knowledge building in a bid to punish current Chinese behavior. Such shortsightedness, however, is likely to damage bilateral ties further down the road by politicizing nuanced vehicles of exchange between China and the United States.”

Eleanor Albert, The Diplomat, 22 July 2020

I particularly liked that description–it captures the administration’s short-term, reactionist approach towards this very long-term, slow-moving activity. They don’t understand its nuance, clearly.

During times of strained relations, exchange diplomacy is needed more than ever. Exchanges offer a way for people to get to know and understand the people of another country–even (and especially) when their governments don’t see eye-to-eye. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that exchanges make long-term contributions to participants’ professional and personal lives, and the lives of those around them in both the home and host countries–their colleagues, peers, students, friends and families. When the “official” situation between two countries is tense, for whatever reasons, these unofficial ties between individual citizens of each nation can offer pathways to understanding and resolution. It’s why the Pew Global Attitudes Survey often finds that respondents around the world have favourable views of “the American people”, even when their view of “the United States of America” has soured. People make a distinction between the country and its people, in part because of exchanges and other opportunities they’ve had to meet foreign nationals face-to-face and get to know each other.

Presidents and their foreign policy agendas come and go, but the Fulbright Program endures–next year will mark its 75th anniversary. I’m confident that this suspension (and many other things about the Trump era) will be just a blip, and US-Chinese exchanges can resume and improve in the future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s