Keep Telling America's Story

During my 31 years in the Department of State, both in Washington and overseas, the exchange programs administered by the United States Information Agency (USIA) have always been an important element of US foreign policy. The collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the cold war vividly demonstrated the decisive power of ideas. USIA exchange programs have been a vital instrument to project American ideas and policies among existing and future leaders around the world.

Most of these programs started and prospered in the cold-war period. The Fulbright and International Visitor programs, in particular, helped us to build our post-World War II alliances with Western Europe and Japan; they established our intellectual and cultural ties with the leaders of the many new nations in the former colonial empires; and they slowly but relentlessly penetrated the Iron Curtain to open up closed societies to the eventually triumphant ideas of freedom and democracy. For every US ambassador, the USIA exchange programs are among the most important mission priorities in a country. They enable the mission to engage a wide spectrum of society - from students and artists to journalists and religious leaders - that simply would not be possible without these programs.

Some people, however, argue that these programs have outlived their usefulness. In fact, educational and professional exchanges are even more important to US foreign policy now. Today's global landscape of sweeping diversity and change introduces a new but compelling setting for these programs:

*The transition to democracy by the former Soviet bloc countries is incomplete.

*Ethnic and sectarian tensions intensify in many regions of the world.

*Industrialized and developing countries alike struggle with the dislocation and adjustments of a highly competitive, interdependent global economy.

*America's traditional alliance relationships are being tested and redefined.

*Environmental problems that respect no national border are increasingly important.

To succeed in the next century as we did during the cold war, we must make the same commitment to the USIA programs that equip US foreign policy to project our values and ideas. Our economic and military security will depend on our readiness today to engage future generations of leaders in countries around the world. We cannot complacently conclude that the success of American ideas in the cold war necessarily ensures their resonance in the decades ahead.

The shrinking world of instantaneous electronic communication is not a substitute for the direct, personal experience of our exchange programs. Relying on CNN, Hollywood films, or the Internet to communicate American ideas offers at best an incomplete, sometimes distorted picture of the US. Government-sponsored educational and professional exchanges are a targeted, highly focused foreign-policy tool that cannot be replaced by commercial media or popular culture.

After World War II, the US made a historic step to abandon traditional peacetime isolationism. Our educational and professional exchange programs - along with the Marshall Plan, NATO, and other international initiatives - were part of the strongly bipartisan commitment to shape the postwar world. At the end the cold war, we have reached another defining moment when the US must make the commitment to shape the very different but still complicated, often inhospitable world of the 21st century.

USIA's exchange programs must remain a vital part of US foreign policy. Some may question whether or not the US today can afford such international activities. Our nation cannot afford the risk of the intellectual disarmament that would result from abandoning or cutting back these programs.

*Lawrence Eagleburger is former secretary of state. This article is adapted from his recent testimony before a subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee.

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