Boren Fellows: The New Faces of Public Diplomacy?

Our group presented our paper: Public Diplomacy and Nation Branding through International Exchange Programs this week to highlight the role and/or effects of international exchange and cross-cultural educational research in efforts of public diplomacy. We focused on the Fulbright (a tool of fostering international goodwill), Peace Corps (international service), and the Boren Fellowship. I wanted to focus on Boren for the sake of this blog entry.

Boren, unlike the other two, is overtly tied to U.S. national security goals, making it a unique tool used by the government to achieve these goals. This fellowship goes to mostly graduate students to enable their international research related to national security interests with the explicit mandate that they return to work for the U.S. Government. The National Security Education Program funds the program, mostly from the Department of Defense.

The reality is that restrictive laws on public diplomacy (through the Smith-Mundt Act) have forced the U.S. to get creative with public diplomacy. International exchange programs like this are an effective alternative to an imposing military presence or DOD-led public diplomacy initiative. Because of this, the U.S. has expanded traditional definitions of national security outside of a security-military-only focus and this scholarship also goes to those doing international development or priority-language projects. Whether intentional or not, these student recipients are like citizen ambassadors, going out into the field and creating connections with those in other countries that help them understand Americans better and vice versa. In some ways, they add to this concept of “branding” the nation as well, and raise questions of an accurate depiction of Americans versus the U.S. Government’s agenda for the American image.

Either way, international scholarships are a great way to get some of the brightest, highly educated students engaged with international issues. This both prepares future leaders in American government to understand the issues of the day, as well as brings expertise to these intelligence positions for their government service requirement. In the future, public diplomacy will undoubtedly rely more upon this soft power approach—not undoing the need for traditional hard power, but creating a more effective balance to create a better image and reputation for the U.S.

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3 Comments to “Boren Fellows: The New Faces of Public Diplomacy?”

  1. I think these scholarships and exchanges are a wonderful way to spend tax dollars. However, I wish that there was more of an emphasis on one-to-one exchanges. Too often the US spends money on foreign students to study here, in hopes that they will “love” American, or at least continue to be leaders in their own countries. This is great, but why not spend money sending more US students abroad.

    There is the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Act, which hopes to get 1 million US students studying abroad within the next ten years. This is great, but unfortunately the US if far from that number now. In 2010, only around 260,000 American students studied abroad for credit, while 725,000 international students came to study here in the US. Unfortunately, there are many obstacles to US students studying abroad–credit restrictions in their programs, financial concerns, familial issues, language barriers, etc. However, government financing for youth to study abroad could eliminate one of these obstacles.

    Also, one of the largest missed public diplomacy opportunities happened just after 9/11 when the US restricted visas (mostly to students from the Middle East). This set a wrong precedent in the region, and one that the US is still recovering from–fewer and fewer students study in the US from these countries annually. When we should be nurturing cross-cultural learning in this area on the world, we are stifling it. This is unfortunate.

  2. I fully support these innovative types of scholarship and fellowship to get to fulfill the dual purpose of furthering their own international experience while assisting the United States in its intelligence efforts. As was stated in the post, “soft power” can be a useful way to gain intelligence and influence with another nation while not exercising aggressive or potentially controversial tactics.

    There are, as lbruce said, some central issues with study abroad. I once read a report by Nadine Dolby that discussed the overwhelming amount of US students who choose to study abroad in more familiar areas like Australia, New Zealand and throughout much of Western Europe. Allowing mass amounts of students to spend their abroad experiences in places that are extremely westernized is a poor approach to this type of soft power influence.

    As of late, I think this issue is on the mend. If anything, I think new programs are targeting more underrepresented countries. Look at the Critical Language Scholarship for example, which specifically targets foreign language development in niche tongues like Azerbaijani, Urdu, Indonesian and Russian. The 100,000 Strong Initiative also is an example of fixing heavy influence on the West. The next wave of study abroad students are going to be concentrating on upcoming superpowers like China, India and Brazil, where the US will need a certain level of intel.

    Most importantly (to me anyway) is that these areas are not as heavily traveled by American college students and therefore there will be a certain level of challenge and growth to be experienced, as opposed to being accommodated in an already Western-style country. I hope these opportunities continue for students and more initiatives are born that introduce harmless yet helpful soft power techniques.

  3. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I agree that study abroad can be a tool for targeting less-Western nations and bring in more understanding to a more challenging cultural exchange and that there is an important space for this. But I don’t know that Dolby’s article directly means we’re not gaining soft power. It is right that if we want to gain soft power/influence/understanding in the Middle East, it’s helpful to have more students going there. But that does not undermine the importance of a student traveling outside of the country. Because Australia and New Zealand are more “Westernized” countries, the value of studying there may not rest in discovering completely different ways of life, but it still could foster a deep love and devotion between citizens of the countries for meaningful exchanges in the future. It also does not hurt to ingratiate ourselves to our allies and show that we have an ongoing interest in their countries’ wellbeing.

    That said, I agree with csmith that encouraging students to choose less popular, less developed or (differently developed) countries is also an invaluable tool for creating soft power and encouraging cross-cultural exchange. I think we will continue to see the numbers grow for students in places that the US has growing national security interests – like China, Brazil, India, and Russia for example. It would be interesting to compare the initial awards of a scholarship like the Boren or Fulbright with the current awards to examine how the landscape has shifted.

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