New Strategies in US Foreign Policy: Building Perception instead of Animosity

by Akio Matsumura

We are out of money.  The 2008 world economic crisis and economic recession have forced many governments to cut back in spending. The media reports daily on which programs will be kept or cut, and lobbyists are working hard to make sure their piece of the pie is not tossed out. In Europe, Greece’s austerity measures—while staving off disaster—have caused riots. In many countries, national security budgets, despite ballooning to epic portions, will be the last to go, though surprisingly, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last week announced that the Pentagon will slash spending in the years ahead.

The defense budget will remain high because of a national paranoia (perhaps rightly) of foreign attack, influential business interests, and the all-important fact that the US is still fighting two wars.  And their position on both fronts looks increasingly untenable:  the effects of the “surge” in Iraq–General Petraeus’ miracle work–is now reportedly dissolving; Western efforts in Afghanistan are producing fewer results than hoped for.  Just this week the New York Times published an editorial, “The State of the War in Afghanistan.” Their survey is disheartening:

But, like many Americans, we are increasingly confused and anxious about the strategy in Afghanistan and wonder whether, at this late date, there is a chance of even minimal success.  

Military efforts are continually stifled or delayed.  What is the Commander in Chief’s next step?  Approval is waning (although a majority of Americans still support the war).  Military operations–even if professed to diminish in the coming years–will continue on at least for the greater part of the decade.  The idea of “winning hearts and minds,” is thrown about loosely and has been variously integrated into the war’s strategies, but I do not believe it has been wholeheartedly included.

I have often mentioned that it is the relationship of trust between individuals that determines a nation’s destiny if it, as a last resort, must go to war.  War is always composed of two tactics: 1) military operations and 2) perception-building (hearts and minds) operations.  If military operations are the blood that pumps the heart of victory, then perception-building is the spirit that wills it to sustain its endeavor.

The US has not done enough to create a favorable perception of itself in Afghanistan.  Specifically, educational and international student exchange programs seem to be of lower priority due to their intangible and invisible results. Certainly they are not regarded as critical to—or even part of—the national security agenda.  Congress should increase funding to these programs while recognizing the important role they play in perception-building abroad.

I would like to mention a story that illustrates how international student exchange programs build national security as well.

I had the pleasure of being acquainted with former US Congressman Philip Ruppe (R) who visited my home.  One day, Mr. Ruppe and his wife, Ms. Loret Miller Ruppe, invited my wife, my son Keishi, and I to their home in Washington, DC, for dinner. Mrs. Ruppe was director of the Peace Corps under the Reagan administration.  She asked me my opinion of US foreign policy since World War II.

I mentioned there were four great success of US foreign policy.  First, I said that the Marshall Plan and the Occupation Policy for Japan were certainly great achievements. She nodded—these were clear successes.
I said next that the other two were the establishment of the Peace Corps and the Fulbright Scholarship.  Mrs. Ruppe was surprised to hear me mention the Peace Corps and asked, “Akio, are you just being diplomatic?”  I told her, “Mrs. Ruppe, I have no need to be diplomatic.  When I was a university student, I wanted to join the Peace Corps so much.  But being from Japan, I could not join.” Many of my American friends joined the Peace Corps after university.

In October 1964, I visited South East Asia as part of a university student exchange program.  For some time we stayed at a Saigon University dormitory—the Vietnam War had not yet escalated to its zenith (or nadir).  We talked through the night with Saigon University students about the war. Obviously, they were against it: the anti-Vietnam War student movement was reaching its peak all over Asia.  I emphasized to Mrs. Ruppe that although they were against the US war policy, they admired US culture and the friendships they had made with Peace Corps volunteers had given them an indelibly positive view of American people.

I cannot emphasize enough that the Peace Corps volunteers and the Fulbright scholars, who later became leaders throughout Asia, have contributed enormously to reduce tensions in the region.  Their work has led to the recovery of relationships with many Asian leaders.  If we consider that the national security programs are the government’s first priority, then it is clear that student exchange programs must figure as prominently as soldiers on our national tool belt.

It impressed me as a student to hear President Kennedy express his appreciation to foreign students for choosing the US as a place to share their culture and their future, and to hear him encourage US students to live abroad to facilitate further exchanges.  I think it is time to revitalize the spirit of President Kennedy: American leaders should express their appreciation to foreign students—in particular ones coming from Muslim countries—who wish to share their culture and lives with young Americans, and encourage more exchange.

After all, we are working hard for our children—for their future and for the betterment of society generally. Emerging leaders who have benefited from international student exchange programs might use their abroad experiences—and most important, friendships—to create a more equitable and peaceful world then we have managed.

The concept of the Peace Corps, Fulbright Scholarship and Pell Grant should be rekindled and bolstered now as we flounder and delay in confusion.

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