The Dumbing-Down of Foreign Policy

The Pentagon and State Department are gutting programs that are key to understanding other nations.

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File - The Pentagon is seen in this aerial view in Washington, in this March 27, 2008 file photo. The WikiLeaks website appears close to releasing what the Pentagon fears is the largest cache of secret U.S. documents in history _ hundreds of thousands of intelligence reports compiled after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In a message posted to its Twitter page on Thursday Oct. 21, 2010, the organization said there was a "major WikiLeaks press conference in Europe coming up."

Cutting government spending is now more than simply in fashion. It's the law. But there are intelligent ways to fulfill this requirement, and ones that are decidedly less so. Logic dictates that it makes sense not to cut (or to cut only minimally) programs that provide a greater return than the original outlay of funds or that invest successfully in human capital.

Unfortunately these principles seem to be lost on the State Department and the Pentagon. Apparently the State Department could not find the paltry $3.5 million necessary to sustain Title VIII of the 1958 Education Act, and is also cutting Title VI. These programs represent the statutory basis for training of Americans to become experts in foreign countries (in my case, the Soviet Union, and now Russia and the post-Soviet states).

The return on this investment has been enormous. For more than 50 years, Americans have been able to study foreign cultures and governments, often within the countries themselves as exchange students, and foreigners have been able to do the same here. The mutual learning on both sides has contributed inestimably to our understanding of foreign governments and to developments like the end of the Cold War. It has also led to the development of what is perhaps the greatest body of intellectual expertise on foreign countries in the world.

In an age of shrinking global boundaries, the decision to cut this program is simply incomprehensible. It betrays a growing societal or political desire to remain ignorant of foreign trends, or to pretend that information technology can substitute for true understanding.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

It is also of a piece with a larger dumbing-down taking place in U.S. foreign policy. Whereas other foreign countries have long had outstanding programs or teaching foreign languages, history, etc., our current and future elites demonstrate a dangerous ignorance of, and lack of interest in, other governments and cultures.

In similar fashion, the Pentagon reportedly wants to eliminate its legendary in-house think tank, known as the Office of Net Assessment. This move is equally wrong-headed. Over the years, Net Assessment has made an immense contribution to our understanding of the world, educating a generation of scholars on the Soviet, Russian and Chinese militaries and thinking deeply about how to sustain American primacy in global affairs. Indeed, much of what we know, and much of our ability to formulate strategies to deal with potential threats, are due to the efforts of this office and its head, Andrew Marshall. As such, it is simply amazing that the Pentagon cannot find the relatively small amount of funding needed to preserve this office, and safeguard the contributions that it makes to U.S. strategic thinking.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Indeed, the desire to retire Net Assessment reflects the habitual – and habitually mistaken – government tendency during times of retrenchment to cut the thinkers and preserve the “operators.” Unfortunately, these decisions have time and again proven costly; when war comes, we tend to discover that we do not know enough about our adversaries, and end up paying dearly (both in blood and in treasure) as a result.

Budget cutting may be necessary, but it cannot become a license for a hollowing out of the governmental institutions which help formulate American strategy, and inform what we know about the world. Otherwise, we will assuredly find that when we need the products and insights that they produced, they will either be unavailable or come with an exorbitant economic and geopolitical cost.

Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

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