Humanities at the Core of Foreign Policy

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The cost of one Predator reconnaissance drone is about $4.5 million to provide surveillance and elimination over a relatively small area for several months. The cost of a college education in the humanities that sharpens understanding of foreign cultures and languages is around $250,000 and it provides perspective, context and communication for a lifetime.

A robust military is essential in adverse circumstances. But even at this moment U.S. troops are trying unsuccessfully to force Afghans and Pakistanis to abjure terrorism and NATO forces have not been able to pound a Libyan dictator into submission.

Citizens of those nations, like people around the world, ground their actions and reactions in customs, faiths, histories and languages which outsiders must know to mitigate conflict and generate cooperation. So, as I reasoned recently before a U.S. Congressional Caucus, study in the humanities yields deep insights that are not only valuable in themselves but are essential to foreign policy and national security.

Let me provide a few details.

Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships, begun in 1958 under the National Defense Education Act and now funded through the Higher Education Act, became a nexus between Washington and academic institutions. At Indiana University, where I teach, students can chose from 82 languages as diverse as Chinese, Persian and Somali. Those students go on to serve in governmental and private organizations as diplomats, intelligence analysts, translators and reconstruction specialists.

Likewise, the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funds research projects that contribute directly and indirectly to understanding foreign challenges. Regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang seek uranium from the African continent for nuclear programs. A field study at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, supported by the NEH in 2009, examined Africa's uranium production. The Arab Spring that has gripped countries from Libya to Yemen is fueled by desires for representative governance, mitigation of corruption and economic opportunities. In 2010, the NEH facilitated a series by America Abroad Media on the Arab world's restless youth.

The long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated that study of lesser-known peoples and their languages is absolutely necessary to implement interventions. So, with Federal funding, the Indiana Complex Operations Partnership between the National Guard and Indiana University began training Second Lieutenants in Pashto and Dari language programs that involve intercultural role plays. Two-thirds of those officers achieve at least elementary proficiency before serving in the war zone - a humanities skill that enhances effectiveness and safety.

Most Americans would agree that understanding and communicating across societies is critical for sustainable effectiveness on the world stage. Yet, cultures and languages are increasingly given short shrift when policy and budgetary matters are decided. For instance, New York State Regents will no longer test students in foreign languages. In the EU, by comparison, 60 percent of high school students learn two or more foreign languages. Additionally, foreign language and culture programs are chastised for promoting criticisms of American foreign policy and therefore targeted for Federal-level budget cuts.

So, despite their far-reaching relevance, funding for the humanities has increasingly become trivial in actual dollar amounts compared to defense and entitlements. Not really an endowment but an annually funded U.S. agency, the NEH received $167.5 million from a Federal budget of $3.552 trillion in 2010, $154.69 million out of $3.82 trillion in 2011, and may receive only $146.255 million in 2012. FLAS funding through the Department of Education was just $35.4 million in 2010 and faces a 40 percent cut in 2012.


Washington has a problem when politicians and budget makers disregard the need to adequately fund education-based, long-term solutions to foreign policy and national security shortcomings. Fiscal resources are found for military hardware; surely allocations benefiting the minds of those who face foreign problems should be given equal importance.

Let me be specific, through observations made before the horrendous events of 9/11, about the negative impacts of paying scant attention to the humanities.

Between 1984 and 1988, I observed drawings on walls of madrasas or religious schools in Pakistan angrily equating Soviets and Russians killing of Afghan families with Israelis using American assistance to attack Palestinian civilians. I saw similar images in Malaysia during the summer of 1990, while attending a workshop on social change. I knew then the diversity and tolerance enjoyed in the U.S. would not be brooked by fundamentalist societies developing elsewhere. Unfortunately Washington, focused on ousting its Cold War foe from Afghanistan and placing limited value on the observations of humanists, was unconcerned.

In 1999-2000 a graduate student of mine conducted a field study of education in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a National Security Education Program Boren Fellow. But prior to al-Qaeda's 2001 attacks policy journals were not interested in how militant Islamist ideology was being propagated. Only once calamity was upon the U.S. did his investigations find print to alert the American national security establishment.

Fieldwork is just one way the humanities contribute to valid information, rigorous analysis and good decision-making. Why let those lessons be obvious only in hindsight? Observations that come from studying cultures closely, learning about their pasts and presents, analyzing and contextualizing their ideas and practices must be given greater credence as routine and ongoing aspects of foreign policy and national security. But it cannot be done well if funding dwindles.

Knowledge of societies and languages provides the key to tending cross-cultural issues before problems develop and to mitigating crises when they occur. Humanistic learning is necessary in good times and bad, for broadening minds and abilities, for making friends and influencing people, even for eliminating foes. So the humanities must remain an integral, well-funded part of education and research in order to surmount global challenges that lie ahead.

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