Foreign policy, International Students, Academic Prowess and more!

Unbeknownst to each other, Georgetown’s Daniel Byman and I have very recently written blogposts that cover much the same ground: foreign policy, “soft power,” and the U.S. State Department.  The essays are mostly conflicting, and I strongly invite you to read both: his is found here, mine is here.  Although I’m often a fan of Dan’s work – and I share some of his concerns about our foreign policy – I do see this one rather differently.

Among other things, Dan frets about losing “soft power” and yearns for a return to “traditional” foreign policy.  Strangely, in an effort to support his charge about Trump’s supposed “retreat from world order,” Dan links you to an article over two years old – before Trump was even elected – and a spring 2017 poll of variety of mostly inside-the-Beltway commentators.

What we know now – in 2018 – is that the U.S. has hardly retreated from the world.  It led a coalition that has destroyed ISIS’s caliphate “more easily,” Ross Douthat of the New York Times tells us, “than intervention skeptics feared.”  In doing so it removed an extraordinary danger to world order.  The U.S. also organized and led a coalition airstrike on Syria when that country defied international law on chemical weapons, and it opened up a dialogue with North Korea praised by world leaders, to include even the European Union.

That’s not all: others recognize the centrality of the U.S. to the economic world order.  This may explain why foreign direct investment in the US is near record highs, and the stock market has hit all-time highs.  The U.S. hasn’t retreated from world order, it continues to define it.

There are other signs as well.  Although business travel to the U.S. is not rising as quickly as elsewhere, it is still increasing.  Moreover, the U.S. Travel Association just made this announcement (June 12th) regarding the U.S.’s winning the right to co-host the World Cup with Canada and Mexico:

We applaud the president for embracing visa policies that support tourism and business objectives, which hold clear value for U.S. job creation and our trade balance—not to mention our standing on the world stage. The president’s assistance with the U.S.’s 2026 World Cup bid is a signal that he is fully committed to spurring GDP and job growth.”

The lure of the U.S. remains extant, but Dan sees things differently.  Citing another outdated article (from January 2017) Dan also claims that the Administration is acting on what he says is a “nonexistent surge in migration.”  But just a few days ago, the New York Times reported that illegal border crossings rose for the third month in a row “as the number of migrants trying to enter the United States continued to rise.”

Regarding “soft power” (as well as his comments about the State Department), nothing in Dan’s piece really causes me to rethink what I said in my essay.  But allow me to address something Dan raises but about which I did not comment.  Dan says “the number of international students fell 7 percent in the fall of 2017,” a “decline is likely to continue as visa restrictions and this administration’s hostility to foreigners make America less attractive.”

Unfortunately, Dan relies on a New York Times report of a study by the Institute of International Education (IIE).  If you look at what the IEE itself says about this study released in November of 2017 (see here) you will find that it covers 2016-2017, that is, more than just the period of the Trump presidency.  Significantly, it says that “the number of international students in the United States increased by three percent over the prior year, and the number of American students studying abroad increased by four percent from the prior year.”  The IIE says this marks the “eleventh consecutive year of continued expansion of the total number of international students in U.S. higher education.”

Yes, you read that right, the number of foreign students studying in the U.S. actually increased.  The decrease the Times article cites is the “number of new international students.” (Emphasis added).  The IIE found that “those enrolled at a U.S. institution for the first time in fall 2016, declined by nearly 10,000 students to about 291,000.”  In other words, the decline began during the Obama administration and at a time when almost every survey and pundit were predicting Clinton would be elected.

Nevertheless, Dan seems to place the whole blame on Trump for the decline in the number of new students, but I think he goes too far.  I strongly encourage you to read carefully this explanation from the IIE:

The factors driving the slowing of growth include a mix of global and local economic conditions, and in some cases expanded higher education opportunities at home and declining populations.  The scaling back of large Saudi and Brazil government scholarship programs were a significant factor, as the number of students from those two countries showed the biggest decreases, particularly in non-degree study.  Much of the increase reported for the past couple of years can be attributed to more students pursuing Optional Practical Training (OPT) related to their academic fields after their degree studies, and thus remaining longer in the U.S. higher education system.  These flattening trends have a nearly two year history, as students reflected in the current Open Doors report were already on campus in September 2016 for the fall term, and most had applied in 2015 and made their decisions in spring 2016.

I read this as finding that the main drivers of the decline in new enrollments were something other than the politics of Trump or, for that matter, Obama.  In any event, it is very revealing that the overall increase in foreign students in the U.S. is driven by those who choose to remain “longer in the U.S. higher education system.”  In other words, the foreign students who actually live here and are closest to the political realities are choosing to stay here in record numbers notwithstanding the Administration.

In terms of Dan’s concern about a loss of “understanding and appreciation, of America and its traditional values” among foreigners, I think the fact that more Americans than ever are studying abroad to be a very important mitigating factor.  Americans studying abroad will clearly interface with more foreigners at more levels and will be, hopefully, excellent ‘ambassadors’ for this country and its values.

Dan also speculates that absent foreign students coming here, “the caliber of foreign universities will improve…and U.S. institutions will decline.”  My disagreement here is three-fold:

1) I’m not alarmed if the “caliber of foreign universities improves” as I believe that better-quality education everywhere makes the world a better place; 

2) I am not so pessimistic about the American people to believe that unless propped up by foreign students, our educational institutions will inevitably decline if the percentage of U.S. students rises.  Perhaps, greater opportunity for American students could be a positive (see here); and 

3) The existing data directly contradicts Dan’s fear of a “decline” in U.S. institutions.

Duke University

The last point is demonstrated by a just-released rankings of the “100 Best Universities in the World Today” by  Importantly, their rankings are based on “academic prestige, scholarly excellence, and sheer intellectual horsepower.”  So what do the 2018 rankings show?  “Fifty-five of the schools listed are in the United States (52 were in the US in the previous version of this ranking).”  (Parenthesis in original.)  In other words, the number of academically superior universities not only hasn’t declined in the U.S., but rather grew.

To be clear, there are things the Administration does in the foreign policy sphere with which I disagree, but I’ve long believed that the foreign policy sky isn’t falling, and I think the facts show that.  The U.S. is more than any individual during any timeframe, and I believe the collective spirit and wisdom of the American people will keep the U.S. as the indispensable nation for free peoples.

As we like to say on Lawfire®, check the facts, assess the arguments, and decide for yourself!





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