By Beth McMurtrie
Robert M. Gates, the former secretary of defense and president of Texas A&M University at College Station, told an audience of international educators here on Tuesday that education is a cornerstone of U.S. diplomacy. Through his long and varied career—in higher education and in four presidential administrations—Mr. Gates said time and again he had encountered instances in which exposure to the United States by foreign partners brought about friendlier relations.
“Connecting students across borders is one of the most effective ways of building understanding across nations,” he said at the opening of the annual conference of Nafsa: Association of International Educators, which has drawn nearly 8,500 people from 95 countries.
Mr. Gates, who is now chancellor of the College of William & Mary, said he had formed his view of education as a diplomatic tool when he began working for the federal government in the 1960s. There, he said, he saw the tremendous good done by organizations and programs such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Information Agency, and the Fulbright exchanges.
He criticized cuts in some of those programs since the cold war ended as “fateful” and “shortsighted,” noting that the attacks of September 11 had had a “galvanizing” effect on international relations. On the one hand, he said, the attacks allowed for the expansion of diplomatic efforts through the State Department and other agencies. On the other, the United States “nearly undermined” itself by imposing burdensome visa regulations on foreign students. As president of Texas A&M at that time, Mr. Gates spoke publicly about the need to fix the visa problem, saying that the United States was “on the verge of handing Osama bin Laden an unanticipated victory.”
Such working at cross-purposes, he said, reflected the “perennially bipolar nature” of the U.S. government, which veers between “negligence and heavy-handed overreaction.”
“We never know when and where America will need allies in this world,” he said, “and no program is more successful at making friends than education in the United States.”
No Quick Fixes
Mr. Gates’s comments were greeted by an appreciative audience, coming at a time when federal budget cuts have scaled back foreign-language and other international-education programs.
The biggest applause, in fact, came when Mr. Gates called for a deeper national commitment to foreign-language education and broader exposure to other cultures. He noted that he himself did not travel abroad until he was 29, while working for the Central Intelligence Agency. But because he had studied not only history but also Russian, German, and Serbo-Croatian, the former CIA chief said, he had a deep understanding of the environments in which he worked.
More recently, he said, he helped develop a program through which ROTC students could earn an extra $50 to $150 a month if they studied another language. Thousands signed up.
Mr. Gates cautioned against quick fixes, instead encouraging the type of deep engagement that educational exchanges and partnerships can bring. While regard for the United States may be low in parts of the world, “the solution is not found in slick PR campaigns,” he warned, “but rather in the steady accumulation of actions, results, and relationships that build trust over time.” (The Chronicle)