“Unprecedented” State Department Cuts – Oh, Dear!

(PHOTO: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas )

Faith Whittlesey Former Ambassador to Switzerland
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The Trump Administration has proposed, among other cuts to the State Department budget, a reduction of 55%, to a “mere” $285 million, in allocations to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.   This bureau promotes (as the name indicates) a variety of educational exchange programs (such as student and academic exchanges) as well as cultural programming (such as tours of musical and dance groups).   

Not unexpectedly, the Administration’s call for a considerable downsizing of the Bureau’s spending produced some hand-wringing and condemnation from Trump critics in the foreign policy establishment.  Recently, former ambassadors (such as myself) were invited to sign onto a letter to House and Senate Appropriations chairs and ranking members pleading for full funding. Others in the media declared that the proposed “crippling” cut would gut America’s outreach and public diplomacy efforts. 

Unsurprisingly, the letter was filled with much jargon about the presumed advantages of government-supported soft power, e.g., “making friends abroad.” It also cited the “low cost” of the Bureau’s programs in the past (on the order of more than half a billion dollars annually).  I declined to sign and will give my reasons.

But, first, here is a prediction.  Cut the Bureau budget, nothing bad will happen.  Indeed,  some good things might ensue.

Much as before, for certain, American musical groups will travel to foreign lands to perform.  Why? The globe is saturated with a rage for American music and culture – even where Americans are not particularly well-liked. Only foreign audiences will have to pay in future for tickets. And likely they will. Educational exchanges will continue, too. The American economy remains a magnet for ambitious foreign students.

Some suggest that, especially during a time when the U.S. needs to address its $20 trillion debt, taxing working Americans to dispatch, say, a Twyla Tharp Dance ensemble (or similar) to Panama or Tunisia on a “friendship tour” is somewhat out of step with fiscal realities.  They are right.

When President Trump issued his much-criticized (and often misrepresented) executive orders suspending travel from seven countries unable to offer assurances about the integrity of their travel documents, college and university presidents from Cambridge to Palo Alto clutched their pearls and wrote letters to their communities and Congress. Lamenting the (imputed) hostility to international students, they worried about the inevitable decline in applications from international students deterred by the newly energized xenophobic climate in the US.   

But by the end of spring admissions season, so I have heard, articles appeared in coastal media and the higher ed trade papers expressing surprise that applications from overseas had swelled, not tanked as foreseen.  (Maybe aspiring students in, say, Shanghai, can differentiate between efforts to protect citizens from terror attacks and imaginary free-floating hostility to anything non-American.)

The higher ed example is the perfect illustration of how the process of doomsday prophesying among elites works (a disheartening feature of American public life since President Trump was elected to change things).  Much ink was spilled to convey superheated rhetoric about impending disaster. But then the anticipated disaster fizzled. 

People who work in government–and those who spend too much time near government (I have noted)—tend to think a government program is the answer to every ill.  However, in the present instance, as alarms are sounded, I am confident the Administration can quietly hum John Lennon’s “Let it Be” (a song that somehow transited the globe without the help of any government program) and press on with (maybe more) cuts. On examination, the only effect of the “unprecedented” cut to this bureau at the State Department could be that US taxpayers will have a few more dollars to spend.

And here’s a thought.  If we create conditions that appeal to international enterprises, perhaps more of them will establish factories and offices in the US.  And then there will be lots of productive cultural exchange taking place at the grassroots level.  For instance, BMW just invested $600 million in its Spartanburg, SC, plant–adding 1,000 jobs.  We can be sure that some BMW managers assigned to South Carolina have learned to love bluegrass and country music–without so much as a federal nickel having been spent.  And they will have learned–despite the German media’s constant regurgitation of the party line from CNN and The New York Times–that the deplorables of South Carolina are pretty decent folks. 

So, end of story, again President Trump has made the right decision (for the American people). A Cold War program, continuing to grow apace for nearly 30 years after the Cold War’s conclusion, has been freshly scrutinized for costs/benefits, found wanting, and brought into check.

Ambassador Faith Whittlesey served two terms as U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland for nearly five years and as a Member of the Senior White House Staff for two years during the Reagan Administration