The Trump administration seeks a 32 percent decrease in funding for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development in fiscal year 2018. If adopted, this budget reduction would not send the organization responsible for creating and deploying U.S. international relations into oblivion.
Since President George Washington appointed Thomas Jefferson to be the first U.S. secretary of State in 1789, the role of the State Department has shifted on countless occasions, depending on who occupies the White House and Congress. Through varying political and foreign policy methodologies, the U.S. diplomacy engine’s foundational pillars have remained consistent. The department’s mission is to advance freedom for the benefit of the American people and international community. To do this, diplomacy is vital.
I Love State’s Programs, But Diplomacy Is About People
The Department of State changed my life. It opened my eyes to a world that was completely unknown to me at the time. After college, I was selected to lead a cultural exchange program that connected average Americans like myself with youth, civic leaders, and community members in remote areas across the globe. During a time of war the opportunity to travel the world representing my country as a cultural envoy and, most importantly, the experiences gained from learning about different perspectives and cultures, changed my life’s purpose and provided me a lifelong mission of providing others the same opportunity I received.
I departed from the United States with preconceived notions of the world and confronted many untrue American stereotypes. With an open mind, foreign citizens embraced me and changed my life as I theirs. With these eyes I went to view President Trump’s proposed budget. Doing exactly what everyone else would, I zoomed directly to the aspect of government dearest to me—the Department of State. And there it was:
The Budget reduces Federal funding by half for the Department of State’s Educational and Cultural Exchange Programs, including the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). The need for federally funded educational and cultural exchanges has decreased significantly given the number of exchange students both coming to the United States and studying abroad without Federal support.
Could the Trump administration cuts damage cultural diplomacy programming? Could this derail the soft diplomacy advances the United States has made? Will the budget cuts decrease America’s influence globally? I asked myself these questions and have read countless articles pontificating doom and gloom.
Optimism About International Diplomacy
After reading the entire State Department budget, I was not disheartened, but inspired, and it encouraged me to do more, particularly for the segment of the State Department’s mission that has so heavily invested in me, thousands of Americans, and millions across the globe. The words of President Kennedy came to mind, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
All organizations have a mission to accomplish, and the same goes for our federal government. U.S. presidents sign legislation into law, often creating massive organizations, independent agencies, offices, and services that receive colossal amounts of taxpayer dollars. Why? To execute a specific mission.
When originally authorized (Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961), educational and cultural exchanges were an important means of exposing foreign citizens to U.S. culture and U.S. citizens to foreign culture. However, in today’s more mobile and interconnected world, students and other international visitors are increasingly relying on other sources of funding and support.
The Department of State has the task of executing our diplomatic engagement, a feature that has been essential to our nation’s history, dating back to our founding. Today, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has a vital mission: to build peaceful relationships between Americans and other countries through cultural, academic and professional exchange programs. Within this realm, the political brass seen on media outlets and international policy disputes take a backseat. It is all about the person to person connection—and it works.
Missions should be driven by their end goal, with funding decisions developed to meet that goal, not the other way around. We have created an entitled environment where we expect funding to increase without evaluating our progress, regardless of whether we are reaching our mission. We need to hold our leaders to a fundamental question: are we accomplishing the set mission?
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified on June 14 before the House Appropriations Committee on Foreign Operations regarding the budget request for the State Department and USAID. He said, “Throughout my career I have never believed, nor have I never-ever experienced that the level of funding devoted to a goal is the most important factor in achieving it.”
Americans Can Fill In the Gaps Without Forcing Taxpayers
Today, our federal government should operate under appropriate budgetary stipulations while continuing to focus on vital needs. Cultural exchange programs are an essential tool to U.S. national security, paving a path towards cohesive partnerships that can lead to global economic development, combat terrorism, and address many more of our globe’s most critical issues. Therefore, budget cuts to these areas should not slow nor derail our nation’s focus on cultural exchanges.
Why? Because the need still remains; we have the tools, technology, and ability to convey the benefits of international exposure, to execute the mission without the dollars of American taxpayers. Federal assistance should no longer pay the bills.
Most Americans understand and have experienced “cutting back” at some point in their lifetimes. When the household budget decreases by unforeseen events or immediate financial focuses require action—such as unemployment, paying down debt, educational expenses, or caring for a family member (the list goes on and on)—we make adjustments. Household operations don’t halt, they adjust accordingly.
Our national debt is currently just shy of $20 trillion. Why would we not expect and demand the president and Congress to take a bold step towards decreasing spending, yet still accomplishing the mission? Do just as families across America do: take necessary measures, remain focused on the mission, and adapt to the changing times because the need doesn’t just disappear and the mission will not accomplish itself.
President Trump’s funding reduction provides the opportunity for communities to engage, work together, and accomplish the mission without being dependent on the federal government. The important role of the U.S. State Department will never recede, yet our approach to international diplomacy engagement must adjust to a new era.
I value the investment our federal government has made into cultural diplomacy and exchange programs. It is a part of my personal narrative and the fabric of our nation. Therefore, when I read the words “reducing funding” in President Trump’s budget, I did not feel threatened nor diminished. I felt inspired and motivated to continue creating innovative avenues to cultural exchanges that benefit Americans and foreign countries, advance the United States’ strategic interests, engage members of our communities, and create partnerships with universities, corporations, and foundations.
I will do more, because cultural diplomacy resides in me and the heartbeats of those affected by the positive imprint of international cultural engagement. I am only one of millions who could attest this fact. I called myself to action and encourage others to do the same.