Commentary

The Federal Budget’s Threat to Foreign Policy

April 16, 2017

David Plunkert for The Chronicle
The draft 2018 budget released by the Trump administration in March proposes devastating cuts in international and area studies. Among other reductions, the budget proposes to eliminate the Title VI program, under which programs like the National Resource Centers, foreign-language and area-studies programs, and American Overseas Research Centers are funded. Other programs to be eliminated include the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the United States Institute of Peace.

These proposed cuts represent more than an impending crisis for international and area studies in the United States. They would also deal a catastrophic blow to the government’s ability to make effective foreign policy for decades to come. Because President Trump’s proposed budget would also gut the Department of State, starving it of resources, the U.S. higher-education system must take a leading role in protecting those institutions — colleges, universities, professional organizations, and others — where faculty members and students will retain that lost expertise.

International and area-studies programs are not simply indulgences for graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences. They are also not merely funding streams through which colleges can support unique course offerings in exotic languages and diverse cultures. Rather, international and area studies play an essential role in creating the next generation of American foreign-policy leaders, and in nurturing the knowledge and expertise that inform them.

This has always been the case. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 jump-started the teaching of less commonly taught languages, and the Department of Education’s Title VI framework references maintaining the "security, stability and economic vitality of the United States" as the central motivation for supporting area studies. The guiding belief behind these programs is that they yield practical knowledge that can be used to make better policy.

Experts in defense, security, and foreign policy must now stand up for international and area studies, to make the case for why language and cultural understanding are so important for making and applying good policy. But colleges and universities must also take the lead.

The link between U.S. national security and foreign policy, on one hand, and international and area studies, on the other, has always made some scholars and academics uncomfortable. One fear is that government funding leads to research that can be used for ill purposes, such as the development of deadlier weapons or local expertise about how to target civilians most effectively. Another is that government funding puts a higher priority on certain types of knowledge or research — for example, theoretical models of conflict rather than immersive ethnography. Still another is that the very association of academic research with government priorities inevitably pollutes the scholarly enterprise, by gauging its value according to nonacademic standards such as policy relevance.

These criticisms have merit, but they ignore the historical reality of international and area studies in this country and beyond. The wording "national resource" is no accident; such programs really are essential resources. No American college or university can afford to provide language instruction in more than two or three of the less commonly taught languages in Southeast Asia, for example. The U.S. military supports language study, but the academic environment uniquely pairs that language instruction with expertise on politics, history, culture, religion, and the arts. U.S. government officials and military officers compose a large proportion of post-B.A. students in these area-studies programs.

The National Defense Education Act, which dates from the height of the Cold War, followed the same template that the Dutch, British, and other European colonial empires followed. It recognized that a United States that aspired to global pre-eminence would need to understand the histories, cultures, and languages of the world — especially those countries and peoples most unfamiliar to the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Today these funds support basic research of all types, as well as language study in what the State Department designates as critical languages, such as Arabic, Russian, Swahili, and Urdu.

And it is no accident that U.S. military officers regularly emphasize the importance of language and cultural study. Commenting on the invasion of Afghanistan, in 2001, Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently said that "we should have taken the first year after 9/11 and sent 10,000 young Americans — military, civilians, diplomats — to language school: Pashtu, Dari, Arabic. We should have started to build up the capacity we didn’t have. … We could have organized, we could have built the right coalitions, we could have done things with a much greater level of understanding than we did in our spasmodic response."

These comments recognize the value of both area studies — knowing more about the languages, cultures, and histories of a region of the world — and international studies — understanding how U.S. interests relate to those of its allies and adversaries.

General McChrystal’s comments are wise, yet the capacity to train those soldiers, civilians, and diplomats exists almost solely because of the federal government’s commitment to international and area studies in our institutions of higher learning. I see many of the students that General McChrystal has in mind in my own classes on the politics of Southeast Asia.

Many of them are aspiring civilian employees of the Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Defense, current military officers, or former soldiers. They pursue area-studies training and international-studies degrees because they understand exactly what happens when the United States makes policies while ignorant of the contexts in which they are implemented.

At this moment in U.S. and global history, Congress must stand up to defend international studies and area studies. But it is also time for colleges and universities to recognize the crucial role that those programs play in training the next generation of U.S. policy experts. Colleges commonly champion their essential role in creating an innovative American work force in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. They must do the same for international and area studies.

Global leadership requires globally engaged citizens, not just technically savvy workers. The U.S. higher-education system is irreplaceable in preparing those engaged citizens, from whom the next generation of foreign-policy and security experts will be drawn. With U.S. foreign-policy making under severe threat from the current administration’s shortsighted budget, the voice of the American university has never been more important.

Thomas B. Pepinsky is an associate professor of government and is in the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University. He is a past president of the American Institute for Indonesian Studies.