How Summer Adventures Become Diplomacy

On November 1, 2018, American Diplomacy published an article by Michael McCarry regarding the Exchange Visitor Program. Per the publication’s website, American Diplomacy is “an electronic journal of commentary, analysis, research, feature stories, and reviews on American foreign policy and its practice.”

A copy of the article is included below:

How Summer Adventures Become Diplomacy

By Michael McCarry

As autumn arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, one of the U.S. State Department’s least heralded but most effective exchange programs has wrapped up another successful summer.

Roughly 100,000 international students, participants in the Summer Work Travel (SWT) program, have returned home to resume their studies after a summer-long cross-cultural adventure in the United States.

SWT permits international students to work in the U.S. during their university summer breaks, allowing them to earn money to cover their program, travel, and living costs.  The students boost the American economy by providing needed seasonal staffing in resort areas, and in turn, get a first-hand experience of the United States.  The program receives no funding from the U.S. government.

Many of these students are visiting the U.S. for the first time. Without SWT, most of these future leaders from around the world would never visit the U.S., given the high cost of American education or even a tourist visit.   Summer Work Travel is the State Department’s largest exchange program, and the only one specifically designed for undergraduates.

Origins and Intent

The U.S. Information Agency (USIA) began administering the Summer Work Travel program in 1965, under its Fulbright-Hays Act authority to foster mutual understanding through a varied menu of exchanges. Following a critical 1990 General Accounting Office (GAO) report, which argued that the Exchange Visitor (J-1) visa was being misused for programs with a work component, former Senator William Fulbright clarified the legislative intent in a 1991 letter to Senator Claiborne Pell, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Fulbright wrote, “…the Fulbright-Hays legislation was intended to cover a broad spectrum of educational and cultural activities.  The Summer Work Travel program is an excellent example of the activities authorized by the ‘other educational activities’ provision…of the Act.”

Fulbright continued:  “Surely USIA must recognize that work can indeed be an important and educational cross cultural experience.  Indeed it may be more influential in forming attitudes and impressions of American life than a purely academic experience.”

Participation Trends

Historically, participation in the program has roughly tracked global headlines.  In its early years, the program remained relatively small, populated by Western European students seeking a summer adventure in the U.S. But when new democracies emerged in Central Europe after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, participation from that region grew rapidly.  By the early 2000’s, Poland became the leading sending country in world, annually topping 20,000 participants.

The U.S. embassy in Warsaw commented at length on this phenomenon in a 2003 cable:

“Particularly in the context of scarce resources [for funded exchanges], the Exchange Visitor programs – especially Summer Work Travel – offer a cost-effective way to bring thousands of young Poles to the U.S. for substantive experiences that are almost invariably positive, and allow us to reach a much broader and younger public than we could ever realistically aspire to through our federally funded programs. Our official programs and these programs are by no means interchangeable, but we see them as playing important complementary roles in our public diplomacy in Poland.”

The embassy concluded,  “Sending such a large cohort of students to the U.S. annually builds a reservoir of good will that will support a strong bilateral relationship for decades as these young Poles move into leadership positions throughout society. Moreover, by helping them sharpen their skills, the program will help facilitate their success in a very competitive Polish job market.  In a very competitive economy with persistent unemployment, university graduates find it difficult to land a good entry-level job without facility in a foreign language, and English is usually the most desirable choice.”

When Poland joined the European Union and $50 flights to London and Dublin became available in Warsaw, an English language work experience became more readily accessible to Polish students.  Participation in SWT declined, a pattern repeated, less dramatically, in most of Central Europe.

Central European numbers were quickly replaced by swelling demand for SWT experiences in Russia and other former Soviet republics, especially Ukraine.  And as those numbers have leveled off, we have seen program growth in newly emerging actors, such as China, Turkey, Brazil, and Thailand.

Regulatory Issues

The rapid expansion of the program, especially in Russia and Ukraine, exposed weaknesses in the program’s regulatory regime. This prompted an internal Department of State review of the SWT program, focused primarily on Russia and the former Soviet republics, which led to a set of regulatory changes for those countries known as ‘the Pilot Program.’  These changes included stricter vetting of jobs to be occupied by SWT participants and more frequent monitoring by American sponsor organizations.

The 2011 ‘strike’ by SWT students who complained about working conditions in a warehouse in Hershey, Pennsylvania, drew more critical attention to SWT.  The State Department moved relatively quickly to cap the program at its then-current level over slightly more than 100,000 participants, to place a moratorium on designating new sponsors, and to publish new regulations in 2011 and 2012 that used the Pilot Program provisions as a basis.  The new rules, applicable worldwide, also expanded the list of prohibited jobs (those judged dangerous or otherwise inappropriate for students), required that all jobs be seasonal, mandated that most students (students from visa waiver countries excepted) have a confirmed job placement before arrival, and expanded expectations for organized cultural activities for participants.

Those regulatory changes emerged from an intensive dialogue among the Department, U.S. embassies, and the U.S. sponsor community represented by the Alliance for International Exchange.  Another proposed rule, published in 2017, is likely to be finalized soon.  After a fairly substantial period under the new 2011 and 2012 rules, it’s fair to say that the State Department and the U.S. exchange community share the view that the SWT program is more effective than it has ever been, and better able to deliver on its mission of meaningful cultural exchange.

Student experiences

In recent travels, I’ve met Summer Work Travel students who were clearly enjoying the opportunity to live and work in the United States during the summer, getting to know Americans in ways that have influenced their understanding of the country.

Dorde, a philosophy student from Serbia who hopes to be a filmmaker, says, “I’m most amazed by everyday things, like the architecture, which is so different from Europe.  “Being here has changed me a lot,” he continued.  “I’m a lot more independent.  Cultural exchanges like this really enrich your life.”

One student, who asked not to be identified, found another lesson in the American experience.  “Your country works really well.  In my country, if you want some sort of permission or certification from the government, it takes a very long time, “ the student said.  “If you have a friend or relative who knows the right clerk, it can speed things up.  Sometimes a bottle of whiskey helps.

“When I applied here for my Social Security card, I applied one day and got my card in the mail the next week,” the student reported, still with a discernible touch of disbelief.

Valery, a Ukrainian student who worked at a sandwich shop in Branson, Missouri, describes her takeaway from the experience:  “I can say that Americans are the great nation. They are all different — in their accents, location, country of origin, religion, color of the skin. But they are united in this diversity.“

Local impact

In addition to learning about the U.S., SWT students support American businesses in resort areas with insufficient supplies of high season workers.

A striking example of labor need is Branson, one of the leading tourist destinations in or around the Ozarks. Branson draws visitors to southwest Missouri with gorgeous scenery, fishing, golf, and a long menu of musical shows.  Branson has a population of 11,000, and on an average summer day, attracts 75,000 visitors.

When I asked Branson Mayor Karen Best where the town would be without the Summer Work Travel program, she replied succinctly, “We’d be in trouble.”

Asked for an example, she gestured toward one of her office windows. “There’s a hotel over there that I know would need to close one of its buildings in the summer without the Summer Work Travel students. And without a doubt, that would have a negative impact on the hotel and its American workers.”

Mayor Best added, “I know there are those who say these students are taking jobs from Americans. That’s not the case at all. Even with the students, we still have vacancies, and we’re still hiring.”

Shawn Clark, Employment Manager at Mohonk Mountain House, a resort in the Hudson River valley, counts on SWT students.  “American students aren’t much interested in seasonal work,” Clark said.  “SWT students represent only about 10 per cent of our summer work force, but they are absolutely essential.

“We never stop hiring,” he said.  “We post jobs all year round.  In mid-August, long after the SWT students arrived, we were trying to fill 78 vacancies.”

Steve Lavery, President of High Sierra Pools in Arlington, Virginia, says the SWT program is essential to his business that serves pools in neighborhoods and at apartment buildings.  “For our purposes, Northern Virginia has a ‘shortage’ of teenagers,” he told me.  “Local teenagers used to staff these pools, but now most of them are looking for internships, taking academic enrichment courses, or traveling.  Pools couldn’t stay open and safe without SWT students.”

People-to-people connections

Based on my recent conversations with SWT participants, one of their strongest impressions is of the American people:

  • “Americans have such kind, open personalities. They are always happy to help.”
  • “People here are so supportive. They make you feel like part of their family.”
  • “America is so multi-cultural. You can meet people from 7 different countries in one day.  And everyone manages to live together.  It’s a lesson for the whole world.”

The vast majority of SWT students take home a very positive view of the United States.   And that’s not just an impression.  A 2017 study by EurekaFacts, commissioned by the Alliance for International Exchange, includes these findings:

  • 91 per cent of program participants say cultural exchange is their primary purpose for visiting the U.S.
  • 90.9 per cent are either satisfied or very satisfied with their experience.
  • 98 per cent of participants recommended the program to their friends.
  • 91 per cent say they gained a better understanding of American culture during the program.
  • 94 per cent report making friends with Americans.

Summer Work Travel students return home and share their stories with their families, neighbors, friends, and classmates.  And, no accident, another 100,000 students will show up next summer, many persuaded by the tales of their friends’ summer adventures.

The Summer Work Travel program transforms thousands of authentic experiences – from simple conversations to Grand Canyon road trips – into powerful, ongoing diplomacy.  It makes lasting friends for the United States, and in part through the stories of its alumni, regenerates itself annually.  By filling a crucial seasonal need, it supports American businesses and American workers.  And it does all that without any federal funding.

A few years ago, the Foreign Service Institute invited me to speak to a group of experienced consular officers about the whole range of State Department exchange programs.

When it came time for questions, one of the officers expressed skepticism about the Summer Work Travel program, arguing that it was just a work program, rather than a true exchange.

At the time one of my sons was a college student who spoke pretty good Spanish and aspired to improve it.  So my response to this officer was more personal than policy: “If my son had the opportunity to spend a summer in Argentina, was able to support himself through legal work with a sponsor organization backstopping him, learned to navigate a foreign culture on his own and significantly improved his Spanish, I’d judge that to be a pretty successful summer.”

Unfortunately, very few countries offer Americans such an opportunity.

Through the collaboration of the State Department and the American entities and communities that host, support, and sponsor SWT students, the U.S. has created something rare and underappreciated:  a program in which nearly everybody wins, every summer.

Michael McCarry

Michael McCarry, senior adviser to CENET, served for 21 years as Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange.  Before joining the Alliance, he was a U.S. diplomat with assignments in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Beijing, and Washington, including a tour as Staff Director for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  His international involvement began with a year as a graduate student at Melbourne University. 

Cenet strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration. For more news and updates about cenet, please visit our Facebook Page.Cenet Logo_Black

Midwest Sponsors Hold Annual Safety Summit

On April 12-13, cenet staff traveled to Chicago, IL to join fellow sponsors Greenheart Exchange and Spirit Cultural Exchange for training and networking at the Midwest Safety Summit.

The Summit kicked off at the Greenheart office with an advocacy update from Michael McCarry, former Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange, followed by a networking reception. Day two included Psychological First Aid presented by the Chicago Red Cross, sponsor presentations on safety best practices, an anti-trafficking workshop led by a local expert, and break-out sessions regarding various safety and support topics.

This was the fourth gathering of Midwest sponsors since 2014.

CENET strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration. For more news and updates about CENET, please visit our Facebook Page.

Cenet Attends Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C.

On March 7-8, over 100 Alliance members met in Washington, D.C. to advocate for U.S. State Department Exchange Programs.

The annual 2-day event featured training and educational sessions, congressional meetings, and a Congressional Reception.

The Congressional Reception at the U.S. Capitol hosted 177 attendees, including guests from the Hill and State. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and State/ECA Acting Assistant Secretary Jennifer Galt provided remarks at the event; both spoke passionately about exchange programs.

In total, 96 congressional offices were visited (48 House, 48 Senate), with at least 5 Members of Congress attending the meetings. Cenet met with the offices of Senator Blunt, Senator McCaskill, Representative Long, and Representative Smith.

As the voice of international exchange, the Alliance promotes the growth and impact of exchange programs and the effectiveness of its members by engaging in advocacy, providing member development opportunities, and building public awareness of the power of exchange.

 

CENET strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration. For more news and updates about CENET, please visit our Facebook Page.

 

Note to Washington: Exchanges Work. Leave Them Alone.

Op-Ed | #CENETJ1 #ExchangesImpact

On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the White House is considering eliminating or severely reducing 5 State Department exchange programs:  Summer Work Travel, Intern, Trainee, Camp Counselor, and Au Pair.

This misguided idea emerged in a White House working group charged with implementing the President’s ‘Buy American, Hire American’ executive order.  While the notion may suggest superficial sense – if internationals aren’t doing these jobs, then Americans could – this move in fact would have virtually no impact on U.S. employment.

And you don’t have to dig very deep to understand the harm it would do:  damage or destroy exchange programs that provide powerful support to our national security, and stifle U.S. economies in resort areas with insufficient supplies of seasonal workers. This move also would do irreparable harm to the large constellation of mission-driven, private American organizations that – with decades-long encouragement and cooperation from the U.S. government – implement exchange programs.  Some of these organizations would be forced to close their doors, others would continue in much reduced form.

Thousands of Americans who work for these organizations would lose good, public-spirited jobs, jobs that make America a better and safer place.

That’s a lot of damage for a move that brings us nothing in return.

As I noted in a recent blog post, young Americans are increasingly less interested in traditional summer jobs.  Time cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicating that only 35 per cent of American teenagers actually look for summer jobs, and notes (again BLS stats) that the number of young Americans seeking summer jobs has declined 15 per cent over the past 15 years.

The BLS data strongly suggest that international students who come to the U.S. are not displacing Americans.  Instead, they are filling a staffing gap that the tourism and camp sectors of our economy desperately need filled, and can’t fill with local hires.  Recent survey data show that ninety-seven per cent of such employers can’t find enough seasonal employees locally, 39 per cent would have to reduce their operations, and 25 per cent couldn’t stay open during the summer.  Time quotes a resort operator from the Wisconsin Dells:  “If anyone says these people are taking jobs away from Americans, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

And of course, If businesses reduced their hours of operation or closed altogether, there would be a significant adverse impact on their American staff.

NPR makes a persuasive economic case that relatively low wages from a summer resort job no longer make a dent in sharply rising college costs.  Students thus invest their time in activities they perceive to have a higher return, i.e., enhancing their resumes, even if the return isn’t monetary.

We’ve known since at least 2005 that the impact of these programs on the U.S. labor market is virtually non-existent.  That year, the GAO published a study on this very question.  GAO summarized its findings in a single sentence:  “(Department of) Labor officials stated that it is not likely that the exchange programs will have any effect on the U.S. labor market because of the small number of J-1 exchange visitors (about 283,000 in fiscal year 2004) relative to the U.S. workforce.”

When I met in 2005 with the GAO team and asked about their findings on labor impact, their response conveyed the same meaning, but with a bit more color:  ‘The Bureau of Labor Statistics laughed us out of the room.  They said such a small number (of students) was not worth studying”.

This White House proposal would not enhance American employment, but it would eliminate important programs that that build good relationships with other nations.  Think of it:  every year, thousands of university students from around the world come to the United States, most for a year or less, at virtually no cost to the American taxpayer.  They make American friends, improve their English, and gain a better understanding of our culture and values.  All surveys show that the overwhelming majority has a great time. They go home and share their impressions with others.  This is an extremely effective way to build good will, mutual understanding, and respect.

In the years after the Berlin Wall came down and the Warsaw Pact dissolved, large numbers of Central European university students seized this opportunity to visit the U.S. for the first time.  For most of that period, Poland was the leading sending country for Summer Work Travel, and our embassy in Warsaw summarized the impact of the program in a 2003 cable:

“Sending such a large contingent of university students to the U.S. annually builds a reservoir of good will that will support a strong bilateral relationship for decades as these young Poles move into leadership positions throughout society. Moreover, by helping them sharpen their English skills, the program will help facilitate their success in a very competitive Polish job market.”

In other words, our exchange programs help us make friends of future leaders, and help those leaders succeed when they return home – an awfully good long-term investment, especially when it costs the U.S. almost nothing.

Interestingly, the student flows to the U.S. for the Summer Work Travel program have aligned fairly closely with global trends. Central European numbers declined as those nations connected with the European Union, and were replaced by strong flows from Russia and Ukraine as former Soviet republics began to find their feet as independent nations.  In recent years, we’ve seen strong interest from emerging economies:  China, Brazil, Turkey, and Thailand.

Adopting the White House proposal will not create jobs for Americans. Adopting it would, however, weaken U.S. diplomacy, damage the economies of American towns and regions that depend on tourism, and wreck a substantial segment of our very vibrant non-governmental exchange community.  American jobs will be lost.  American businesses and nonprofits will be shuttered.

Is that a good deal for America?

*This post was updated on August 30.


Michael McCarry

Michael McCarry, senior adviser to CENET, served for 21 years as Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange.  Before joining the Alliance, he was a U.S. diplomat with assignments in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Beijing, and Washington, including a tour as Staff Director for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  His international involvement began with a year as a graduate student at Melbourne University. 

Proposed changes to privately funded exchange programs would hurt many American communities, especially those that rely on seasonal business. We are working defend cultural exchange programs against impending restrictions. You can help, too. Please take a minute to inform your senators and representative about the impact of BAHA restrictions on exchange programs. You can do that by sending a letter asking them to contact the White House and urge that J-1 international exchange programs NOT be included in the BAHA implementation. Privately funded exchanges serve as a vital element of our national’s diplomacy. They support our national security and strengthen local economies across the U.S. Let us work together to ensure Congress helps preserve these programs!

CENET strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration.For more news and updates about CENET, please visit our Facebook Page.

Summer Jobs and the National Interest

By Michael McCarry 

Op-Ed | @CENETJ1 #ExchangesImpact

Two recent articles – one in Time magazine and the other on National Public Radio – demonstrate that American students are losing interest in summer jobs.

Time cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicating that only 35 per cent of American teenagers actually look for summer jobs, and notes (again BLS stats) that the number of young Americans seeking summer jobs has declined 15 per cent over the past 15 years.  So this is a trend, not an aberration.

Time argues that the decline is mostly about American students’ aspirations for higher education.  As college admission in the U.S. grows more and more competitive, American students increasingly spend their summers on academic enrichment or resume-building activities like internships, organized sports, and volunteering.  Time reports that resort operators have filled the gap with older American workers and international university students, who come to the U.S. through the Department of State’s Summer Work Travel (SWT) program.

NPR agrees that declining interest in summer jobs has to do with college, but arrives at its conclusion via a different path.  The piece makes a persuasive economic case that low wages from a summer resort job no longer make a dent in sharply rising college costs.  Students thus invest their time in activities they perceive to have a higher return, i.e. enhancing their resumes, even if the return isn’t monetary.

The appearance of these articles is timely.  The White House and several federal agencies are working on plans to implement an Executive Order entitled, “Buy American, Hire American.”  A sharp reduction in the Summer Work Travel program is apparently under discussion.

This would be a very serious mistake.

First, as the BLS data show, international students who come to the U.S. on SWT are not displacing Americans.  Instead, they are filling a gap that the tourism sector of our economy desperately needs filled.  Time quotes Tommy Diehl, president of a major attraction in the Wisconsin Dells:  “If anyone says these people are taking jobs away from Americans, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Just as important, SWT is the State Department’s largest exchange program, and its only program that reaches undergraduates in significant numbers.  And because the program is funded through student fees, all these positive people-to-people connections happen at no cost to the US taxpayer.

Students come from all over the world – Ireland, Russia, Ukraine, China, Turkey, and Brazil are among the largest sending countries – and enjoy the powerful cultural exchange experience of learning to live and work in a new country.  Students cover their program and living costs through their earnings.  Surveys show that over 90 per cent of these students are motivated to visit the U.S. by their desire for cultural exchange, not because they want to work. Ninety per cent have a positive experience, make American friends, and improve their English.  And a remarkable 98 per cent recommended the program to friends, a clear sign of a successful exchange program.

Here’s where we are, in policy terms:

We have a popular, successful Summer Work Travel program that builds good will for the U.S around the world at no cost to the American taxpayer, directly connects us with students who are future leaders in their home countries, and supports our tourism sector by filling a critical seasonal gap.

And yet, policymakers are considering sharply reducing the size of the program, or perhaps even eliminating it, despite much diminished demand from Americans for such jobs.

Someone asked me recently if this circumstance really poses a serious threat to the program.  After all, she continued, SWT has faced regulatory challenges in recent years and always has emerged stronger.

My answer:  on a scale of existential threat with 10 being the most threatening, we are now facing a 10.  What’s going on in Washington is not a discussion about the best way to run the program, but whether we should have the program at all.

All American stakeholders in this program – host communities, employers, and sponsors – should make their voices heard by their Members of Congress and the White House.  Summer Work Travel is a national diplomatic asset – low cost, high value, long-term payoff – that we need to preserve.

Michael McCarry

Michael McCarry is a Senior Advisor at CENET. With over 37 years of international experience– both as a Foreign Service Officer and the Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange– Michael McCarry is a leader within the exchange community, with distinct insight and knowledge in policy, foreign affairs, and public diplomacy. 

The Summer Work Travel program is good for Americans and great for America. This cultural exchange program that supports strong economies and & U.S. national security interests is under attack. For more information and ways to get involved in protecting this valuable public diplomacy program, please visit Americans for Cultural Exchange or contact CENET.  

CENET strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration.For more news and updates about CENET, please visit our Facebook Page.

 

 

 

 

 

Worrisome Gaps in State Department Staffing

By Michael McCarry 

Op-Ed | #CENETJ1 #ExchangesImpact

About a month ago, I wrote that Congress’s strong appropriation for the Department of State and for its exchange programs was a very encouraging sign for all of us in the exchange community.

Maybe I wrote too soon.

An NPR interview this week with Max Bergmann, who worked at State for six years during the Obama Administration, publicly reinforced what I’ve been hearing for some time from colleagues in and around the Department:  that under Secretary Rex Tillerson, State is being – to use Bergmann’s term – ‘hollowed out’.

Even with a one per cent increase in funding for the current fiscal year (not usually considered a sign of dire financial straits), the Trump administration’s State Department has instituted a hiring freeze.  That means that as people leave or retire, they mostly are not replaced.  Some senior Foreign Service Officers and civil servants – people with abiding personal commitments to U.S. national security and career-deep expertise – have been reassigned to lesser positions, and have chosen to leave the Department.  And the intake of junior Foreign Service officers appears to have slowed to a trickle.

Put these details together and here’s what you get:  State is choosing to diminish itself at its senior and junior rungs, and to not fill vacancies.  It’s hard to discern how this approach will enhance our diplomacy, or our national security.

You can hear Bergmann’s NPR interview here.

And read his longer treatment of the topic in a Politico article here.

I served in the Foreign Service for about 16 years, with overseas tours in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Beijing, plus several Washington assignments.  I can tell you that the State Department’s foreign service and civil service staff is exceptional – smart, dedicated, and passionate about serving the American public.  I was proud to be among them, every single day.

The notion that we can conduct successful diplomacy on the cheap is just wrong.  The United States remains the most important country in the world, and we need a State Department that can effectively serve our national interests, needs, and ambitions.  That requires resources, not just dollars but also human resources.

State Department staffing is not the kind of topic that will lead the nightly news, but it is critically important to our national well-being.  This issue raises serious alarm bells, and thus deserves serious attention from Congress, the media, and the public.

Michael McCarry

Michael McCarry is a Senior Advisor at CENET. With over 37 years of international experience– both as a Foreign Service Officer and the Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange– Michael McCarry is a leader within the exchange community, with distinct insight and knowledge in policy, foreign affairs, and public diplomacy. 

CENET strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration.For more news and updates about CENET, please visit our Facebook Page.

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More Funding for Exchanges: Good News for Everyone

By Michael McCarry 

Op-Ed | #CENETJ1 #ExchangesImpact

In its budget deal to keep the government open until the end of Fiscal Year 2017 (Sept. 30), Congress increased overall State Department funding by 1 per cent, and funded the Department’s exchange programs at $634 million, a 7 per cent increase and only $1 million short of all-time high water mark for exchanges in FY2010.

This is extraordinarily good news for the country, and for anyone who cares about exchanges, even if your programs do not receive federal funding.

Here’s why:

President Trump’s first budget request (for Fiscal Year 2018, which begins October 1 of this year) seeks a 29 per cent reduction in State Department funding, and deep cuts for most exchange programs.

Like any other President, Trump only gets to propose funding levels for federal agencies and programs.  Congress decides.  And it will need to make its decisions on Trump’s first budget in time for the new fiscal year that begins October 1, 2017.  If necessary (and it often is), Congress can postpone that deadline by passing Continuing Resolutions that keep the government running temporarily at the previous year’s funding levels.

During the Watergate crisis, secret source Deep Throat (FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt) famously told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that if he wanted to understand what was going on, he needed to “follow the money”.  That’s still good advice when trying to parse Washington politics.

In Washington, money serves as its own kind of language.  In its appropriations for the State Department and exchange programs, Congress sent the White House a clear, even emphatic message:  diplomacy matters.

The current Republican-controlled Congress is not alone in this view.

Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, noted in a 2008 speech, “…our own national security toolbox must be well-equipped with more than just hammers.”

Current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, testifying before Congress for the Pentagon as General Mattis, made the same point in 2013: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition… I think it’s a cost-benefit ratio. The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.”

Work is just beginning on 2018 appropriations, but the strong expression of support from Congress leaves the State Department and its exchange programs in a good position as the next funding cycle begins. The 2017 numbers tell us that Congress is not prepared to consider the steep cuts proposed by the President.

And that creates a much more positive outlook for everyone in the exchange field, even those whose programs derive support from participant fees. If budget numbers are indeed a Washington dialect, a significant cut would tell you that diplomacy and exchanges are not considered important. A funding boost such as the one just enacted tells you they matter a lot.

In the political world, that message matters, because the rationale for exchange programs – whatever the funding mechanism – is identical.  Members of Congress who favor strong funding for exchanges are more likely to understand and support well-run exchanges that don’t receive federal dollars, because all exchanges promote mutual understanding and respect, and thus, as Secretaries of Defense have testified, support U.S. national security.

Moreover, every exchange program is better off with a strong Department of State.  We all need U.S. embassies with the facilities and staff to adjudicate visas in a timely way, to reach out to potential exchange participants with information and encouragement, and to direct exchange programs in ways that serve the public interest.

Recent Congressional action on exchange funding and the very clear message it sends go a long way preserving that capacity for all of us.


Michael McCarry

Michael McCarry is a Senior Advisor at CENET. With over 37 years of international experience– both as a Foreign Service Officer and the Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange– Michael McCarry is a leader within the exchange community, with distinct insight and knowledge in policy, foreign affairs, and public diplomacy. 

CENET strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration.For more news and updates about CENET, please visit our Facebook Page.

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