On April 4, Congress begins deliberations on a $30 million funding cut for the Fulbright Program. Is this just a case of budget austerity – or a sign that the U.S. is re-thinking soft power around the world? 

Fulbright operates across most of the UN General Assembly roster, spanning 155 countries across the globe. Photo: Fulbright Commission Belgium.

Next fiscal year, Fulbright – one of America's broadest, oldest and arguably most successful international exchange programs – is facing an unprecedented $30 million funding cut. The proposal has generated substantial backlash (including its own website), but whether this public outcry will have any effect is open to question – given that similar cuts have already been made to many similar academic exchange and cooperation programs, especially those that are Russia-related.

While it’s easy to interpret the proposed funding cutback as yet another sign of increased tensions between Washington and Moscow, the real reason may have to do with the White House’s attempts at budget austerity that pre-date the recent events in Ukraine. However, as experts interviewed by Russia Direct noted, the current chill in bilateral relations could also be a contributing factor whose impact is likely to increase as the geopolitical crisis drags on. 

The J. William Fulbright Educational Exchange Program currently stands to lose $30.5 million of its annual funding of $234.6 million, according to President Barack Obama's request for the Department of State's budget for the 2015 fiscal year, which begins October 1. 

The proposal, which provides no explanation for the budget cuts, is to be approved by Congress. Alumni of the Fulbright Program, which has had nearly 325,000 participants since its launch back in 1946, are already beginning to pester members of Congress to reinstate funding. The alumni list includes 53 Nobel Prize laureates, though those have yet to weigh in on the issue.

Fulbright Program Director Joel Ericson confirmed to Russia Direct that “nothing conclusive” is to be reported so far about a possible slashing of the program's budget. The tentative cuts are also not directly related to Russia. Fulbright operates across most of the UN General Assembly roster, spanning 155 countries across the globe. In Russia, it has been active for more than 40 years.

Nevertheless, the threat to Fulbright is a link in the chain of similar events that have also affected a number of other U.S. academic programs that cover Russia. State Department's Title VIII program, which supports American researchers focusing on Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union (of which ex-ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul is a graduate) was folded in 2013. The Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program, an exchange program launched in 1992 and focusing on the ex-Soviet Union, was discontinued in 2013. The Washington, D.C.-based think tank Wilson Center announced plans earlier this year to close the Moscow office of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, or at least scale back its operations due to funding issues – a reason also cited by the privately owned Ford Foundation when it shut down its offices in Moscow and Hanoi in 2009.

“U.S. budgetary concerns played an important role in the cutbacks before the outbreak of the current crisis in relations, with a lot of sequestering of funding for scientific exchange and cooperation programs done in the past two years,” said Feodor Voytolovsky, an expert on American studies at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow.

He was echoed by Ericson, who said that, “The United States hasn't been in such great shape budget-wise. This is probably the main reason for the discussion about budget cuts to the Fulbright Program.”

Obama's administration is working to decrease the national debt, which exceeds $16 trillion, as well as the budget deficit, which has shrunk from $1.4 trillion in 2009 to $534 billion last year as a result of a painstaking effort that involved a protracted standoff with the Congress and led to the government shutdown of late 2013.

As a whole, though, the cutbacks do not imply a strategic rollback of U.S. soft power, which has always relied on mechanisms such as educational exchanges.

Soft power is the flesh and blood of America's foreign policy, regardless of presidential administrations,” said Valery Garbuzov, Deputy Head of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. “The current cutbacks are temporary, though it's hard to say how long they will last.”

Unfortunately, exchange and academic programs are the first to go under the knife in times of budget cuts, said Garbuzov of the Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies. But funding fluctuations are temporary by definition and largely depend on the particular White House administration, which means things may change under Obama's replacement, though not necessarily for the better, he said.

“Foreign aid funding has always been a soft area of U.S. budgets, in any case, because of the domestic-centered, almost isolationist leanings of the American public,” said Carol Leonard, an American expert in Russian studies who teaches at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

The current standoff between Moscow and Western powers over Ukraine, admittedly, provides little incentive to spend money on bilateral cooperation, even in the academic sphere, experts said. Russia's takeover of the Ukrainian region of Crimea last month has already resulted in the expulsion of Moscow from the G8 group. Moreover, the United States and EU have reportedly blacklisted a number of allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and both Washington and Brussels have spoken about the possibility of stricter sanctions. “Obama is trying to isolate Russia as much as possible, and this [rollback of exchange programs] is part of it,” Garbuzov said.

The rollback would have a negative impact on bilateral relations, decreasing the quality of policy-making expertise, analysts said. “The funding gap will produce "experts" who have only their memories of what Russia used to be in the Soviet era to base their positions and views,” Leonard said.

“The less they spend, the less they understand what's going on in Russia,” Voytolovsky said.

The proposal to cut Fulbright funding has generated substantial backlash, including its own website. Photo: Press-photo.  

But the demand for experts on Russia will only increase as relations, which were plodding ahead without much enthusiasm over the past decade, become more tense and convoluted, analysts said.

“If you have an opponent or a serious rival with whom you have a complex, convoluted relationship, you need more experts to advise your policy towards them,” said Voytolovsky. He added that a broader policy change was afoot, with the United States wanting more practical-minded policy advisers as opposed to academic researchers, e.g. historians or political scientists, who are the usual participants of academic cooperation programs.

Nevertheless, international exchange will not go away because of the value that the United States place on their soft power, regardless of who sits in the White House, said Garbuzov, himself a Fulbright graduate.

But none of the experts interviewed for this article ventured to predict when the current lean times may end. Most agreed that domestic economic concerns in the United States will continue overshadowing the importance of international cooperation for a while.

“With all due respect, not everyone in the United States agrees about the value of international education, and this year, the Congress has a contentious budget to review,” said an official at one of the U.S. exchange programs who asked not to be identified.