For Americans to Lead, They Must Travel

U.S. college kids see Big Ben more than Beijing. They’ll be unprepared for a global future.

In 2013, General James Mattis cautioned against an American withdrawal from global diplomacy. To the Senate Armed Services Committee, the CENTCOM commander declared, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Those who believe that soft power saves lives and dollars—and those who see time away from U.S. shores as enriching—should be cheered that the number of American students studying abroad has more than tripled since the 1990s. However, the nearly uninterrupted increase each year masks two worrying trends: U.S. students are not studying in more diverse places; and each is spending less time abroad on average.

In the 2017-18 school year, of more than 340,000 American students who studied abroad for credit, 55% spent their time in Europe. Globally, nearly 65% attended programs lasting less than two months. Only 2.3% stayed for an academic year. Even brief participation can offer insights. Yet a summer in the Mediterranean rarely yields the deep, first-hand comprehension that comes from prolonged encounters with places less like the United States.  

In the past two decades, the number of Chinese students studying abroad rose from 40,000 per year to 660,000 per year. During this period, while U.S. officials turned greater attention to diplomatic and defense policy in the Indo-Pacific, American students did become twice as likely to study abroad in Asia. But still, the disparity remains stark: In 2017-18, more American students attended programs in the United Kingdom than in all of Asia. Twice as many studied in Italy as in all 54 countries of Africa combined. About as many American students chose programs in India as participated in Quidditch, the ballgame derived from the Harry Potter books.

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Part of the problem is language, with a strong preference among U.S. students for countries where English is commonly spoken. This underscores a second problem. The American Councils for International Education estimate that only one in five U.S. schoolchildren studies a second language. Of those, 20 times more students study German than Russian. And as many are learning Latin as Chinese—just 2%.

Another problem is funding. The Department of Education’s Foreign Language and Area Studies program offers scholarships to those who focus on critical and understudied languages. But last year, the Department of Education spent only around $50 million on such programs—in terms of the Mattis remark, less than the cost of one F-35 fighter.

Only 0.2% of U.S. students abroad are primarily government-sponsored, compared with nearly 10% of their Chinese peers. And federal programs that do exist often fail to cover students’ costs. The Gilman Scholarship, a State Department program aimed at promoting international experiences for low-income students, caps its stipend at $5,000. Fulbright scholarships offer limited healthcare coverage, and some provide living stipends but nothing for tuition. These barriers tend to limit international exposure to the affluent, which also deprives destination countries of a cross-section of American society.

We know how intercultural exchange broadens perspective, forges friendships, and highlights the commonalities of human experience. But global leadership requires those who are aware of the whole world, not merely aware of our closest allies. If the United States is not to “buy more ammunition,” then rethinking how young Americans encounter other countries is a matter of strategic urgency. When widespread travel begins again in the aftermath of the pandemic, it will be time for a course correction.

David Hamburger is the Persuasion director of operations.