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.

Out Now! Journal article on exchange diplomacy and the Fulbright Program

My new journal article in Place Branding and Public Diplomacy is now available online! It discusses the theory and practice of exchange diplomacy and analyses the results of a survey of Fulbright Program administrators around the world that I conducted for the 70th anniversary of the program, in 2016. I presented the study at the ICA Conference in Prague last year, and wrote and re-wrote this paper a few times between now and then. I’m much happier with it now that I was with its earlier versions, and it’s great to see it finally getting published.

Read it for free here.

This has been my first properly “independent” publication–my other 3 have all been published alongside other conference papers in special issues of journals/an edited book. I’m working on a couple of other independent things, so hopefully there will be more publication announcements in the near future!

China and global higher education

In terms of the global flow of international students, there’s no bigger actor than China–they send hundreds of thousands of students overseas each year (662,100 in 2018) and institutions in the US, UK, Australia and Canada compete for them and the economic benefits and cultural diversity they bring to campus with them. There has been an expansion of higher education opportunities for Chinese students, with more students from ordinary backgrounds pursuing degrees overseas–it’s no longer exclusively for wealthy elites. Chinese students are also increasingly likely to return home after their studies–fears of international higher education contributing to the ‘brain drain’ phenomenon are not reflected in practice.

The Diplomat recently featured an interview with former Ambassador and current VP of International Programs at Washington State University, Dr. Asif Chaudhry. When Dr. Chaudhry was asked about U.S. policymakers’ concerns about Confucius Institutes (CI), his response captured the key elements of the debate very clearly & concisely:

“This can be a very controversial topic because of the potential for conflicts among issues of protecting U.S. interests, principles of academic freedom, and concern over curricular control and Chinese state censorship. In this complex environment, it is important to not lose sight of the value of promoting shared cultural understanding. It seems more productive to ask a somewhat different set of questions: a) is the current CI model the best way to achieve the goals of providing Chinese language learning and Chinese cultural understanding and/or, b) how else can this be done without hosting a CI in an era in which it is crucial to intellectually engage with China and protect the integrity of the goals and values of higher education?”

Dr. Asif Chaudhry, US-Asia Education Exchange: The Impact of Public Diplomacy

I particularly liked his second question, the idea of alternative ways of engaging with China that go beyond the Confucius Institute. Exchanges are an obvious answer, as are overseas campuses that bring Western institutions to mainland China. Last year, the government ended many of its partnerships with foreign universities, but they remain a significant link between Chinese students and Western faculty.

I also liked Dr. Chaudhry’s emphasis on cultural understanding. He connected discussions of U.S. policy towards Asian students to larger questions of cultural exchange and understanding.

“Without exposing U.S. students and scholars to other cultures of the world and vice versa, we cannot ensure a mindful understanding and appreciation of each other in a global economy. Policy decisions that inhibit the free flow of ideas or the ability to interact with each other are ultimately detrimental to U.S. interests at large.”

ibid.

Connecting U.S. interests to international education is a classic way of generating political support–Senator Fulbright did it in the 50’s when he argued for exchange funding as part of a larger Cold War strategy. Today, it might be the global economy instead–very important, especially in light of Trump’s trade war with China. American policymakers worry about the impact of Confucius Institutes, but the trade war has much more immediate, tangible effects that are worth worrying about.