Rolling Up the Welcome Mat

The United States’ best soft-power tool is an obscure government program you’ve never heard of. Does it still have a future?

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It was during a 1976 visit to the United States that F.W. de Klerk — South Africa’s last apartheid-era president — realized that his country’s “race relations could not be left to run their course,” as the New York Times put it in a 1989 article. After witnessing America’s tortured efforts to deal with its racial problems, de Klerk, then a senator, resolved that South Africa needed to take action before it was too late. Just over a decade later he became president, freed Nelson Mandela, and negotiated the dismantling of apartheid.

De Klerk’s visit to the United States was no accident. He was a participant in one of the U.S. government’s most successful soft-power initiatives. The International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) has brought more than 200,000 foreigners to the United States since its founding in 1940. Its mission — a textbook example of what Hillary Clinton called smart power — is to identify ambitious people who will play outsized roles in their countries’ histories and to make sure these future leaders understand the United States and how its democracy works. Participants visit cities large and small to meet ordinary people and witness American governance, replacing media-fed misinformation with personal experience. The program’s roster of alumni is impressive: It includes Anwar Sadat, 11-year president of Egypt and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

In today’s multipolar world, where civic groups and social network activists compete to outdo each other in rendering traditional statecraft irrelevant, one would think that supporting a program like this — praised by veteran diplomats as “the best money we spend overseas” — would be a no-brainer. As scholars ring alarm bells about the rising threat from assertive authoritarians, a program that offers foreigners direct exposure to the workings of American democracy is clearly urgently needed. (Disclosure: I worked on the IVLP program in Boston from 2008 to 2010.)

Yet under a U.S. president who promised a smart, consensus-driven approach to foreign policy, IVLP funding has fallen for four consecutive years. The president’s latest budget request for 2016 foresees another $2 million decrease, to just under $88 million. (By comparison, a single F-35 fighter, which has yet to fly a single mission, costs $101 million.) The number of participants peaked in 2011 at nearly 5,300 and has been dropping since; at last count, in 2014, it was 4,700. Moreover, the length of IVLP tours has been dropping steadily. In the 1980s, visitors had a month to soak up U.S. society and culture. In the early 2000s, three-week programs were the norm. These days, “rapid response” 10-day tours are increasingly common.

This leaves participants with little time outside of professional meetings to get acquainted with ordinary Americans — yet it’s often those informal situations that have the most profound impact. Nancy Gilboy, president of an organization in Philadelphia that organizes local IVLP tours, remembers a Middle Eastern visitor who was astonished to dine, within the span of a few days, in the home of one staunchly Republican family who heaped praise on President George W. Bush, and then with a liberal family who was scathing. “This tells me,” the visitor said, “that you are truly a free country.” Ambassador William Rugh, whose 31-year career as a diplomat has focused on public diplomacy, has such stories in mind when he calls IVLP a “golden” program: “one of the best we’ve got, if not the best of all.”

State Department officials insist that recent declines in IVLP funding don’t represent a shift in priorities. They point to a general decline in budgets (the United States’ international affairs budget has fallen 16 percent in the past five years) and note that the current IVLP funding slump should be viewed in light of a sharp rise after the 9/11 attacks. The State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for professional and cultural exchanges, Mara Tekach, explains that her office has recently created a whole range of other new visitor programs, mostly focusing on students and youth. She assured me that IVLP would remain the “flagship” public diplomacy program for years to come.

But IVLP funding isn’t just running low; it’s plagued by uncertainty. Congressional gridlock means that State Department programs are funded by continuing resolutions that require them to operate at below full capacity. Sequestration has also taken a toll. And 2013’s government shutdown froze the program in its tracks for weeks, adding to the confusion.

These signs of instability are reverberating throughout the network of 90 independent nonprofits that administer the program around the country. These organizations — in cities as large as Los Angeles and as small as Tifton, Georgia — do the work of arranging local meetings, events, and experiences for IVLP visitors. This careful remove from direct government administration helps make the program convincing for visitors who might be initially skeptical, even hostile, to the United States.

These organizations depend on State Department funding to make IVLP possible. And though their staff universally profess their dedication to the program and believe that it will survive, they are worried. “The last few years have been a little rocky,” said James Liffiton from the Arizona Council for International Visitors. “A little scary,” said Amy Barss from the World Affairs Council of Oregon. A longtime administrator from a D.C.-based partner organization who asked to remain anonymous said gloomily, “This year has certainly been the worst year that I’ve been here.”

With the total number of IVLP visitors dwindling and funding prospects shaky, these organizations must look elsewhere to grow, or at least maintain, their levels of funding. Increasingly, they are pivoting away from government programs like IVLP to focus on the private side of the international visitor business. The WorldChicago is focusing on bringing visitors to local universities; such private-sector clients now make up 15 percent of its visitors, with plans for further growth. Karen de Bartolome, director of WorldDenver, said her organization is focusing on corporate clients. “We don’t see much further growth for IVLP,” she said. In Philadelphia, the talk is of new programs for municipal officials from China and Vietnam, paid for by those governments. Philadelphia used to host over 500 IVLP participants in the mid-1990s. This year it’s hoping to reach 360.

Diversification isn’t necessarily a bad thing — and virtually everyone in the field agrees. Global Ties — the umbrella organization of the IVLP network — has garnered praise for helping its members move away from dependence on a single government-dependent revenue stream. “In time,” its president, Jennifer Clinton, says, “the private sector and universities will far exceed what the U.S. government is doing [in exchanges].”

And yet no corporate-sponsored junket or student exchange can do what IVLP has done for 75 years. Its participants are future leaders, hand-selected by U.S. embassies in pursuit of concrete foreign-policy goals. A recent group of Iraqi journalists was eager to arm themselves with information to refute claims, widespread at home, that the United States supports the Islamic State. No group of students, no matter how bright and well intentioned, would be as authoritative. And what about countries that don’t offer hot markets for corporations? It’s hard to imagine business sponsors bringing Sudanese journalists, Afghan teachers, or Algerian youth leaders to meet American families. Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s father, was an IVLP participant several years before the Taliban attack, and her heroic defiance, catapulted her to the Nobel Peace Prize. It would be a shame if waning IVLP funding means America will lose its chance to get to know the next Ziauddin — or the next Malala.

IVLP supporters arm themselves with these arguments as they seek to build support for the program in the halls of Congress. They also remind legislators that the IVLP budget is a minuscule fraction of the already paltry 1 percent of federal spending that goes to international affairs. They stress that a large chunk of the funds returns to local communities around the country as visitors pay for hotels, restaurants, and transportation.

No one disputes the importance of the private sector in advancing American soft power. Yet the history of the IVLP reminds us that there are certain things that can be done most effectively by government. Here’s a case of a cheap and effective government program that enriches and inspires everyone — foreign and American — who comes into contact with it. Has U.S. governance become too dysfunctional to know a good thing when it sees it? With slick Islamic State videos and relentless Russian propaganda turning heads around the world, it would be good to see evidence that American democracy is still willing and able to put its money where its values lie.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, March 11, 2015: The quote “race relations could not be left to run their course” is from a 1989 New York Times article. An earlier version of this article implied that it was said by F.W. de Klerk. Also, the last U.S. government shutdown happened in 2013. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said it happened “last year” (2014).

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