By Laura Rose, CEO, Center for Cultural Interchange

As we contemplate the onset of a new year and our continuing desire for peace on earth, America has much to thank the international exchange community for. As a result of the positive experiences of millions of exchange students who have visited the United States over the last half century, the world is unquestionably a more peaceful place. Countless testimonials and surveys conducted by the exchange community at large indicate that the vast majority of young people coming to America to participate in a variety of self-funded exchange programs ranging from Summer Work and Travel, Intern and Trainee, as well as high school and university enrollment, return to their home countries with a dramatically more positive view of the U.S. and Americans, as well as a greater appreciation of democratic ideals. Many of these young people, the best and the brightest from over 150 countries around the world, will eventually become their nations’ leaders in business and politics, and in their future roles, will recall with fondness the Americans they came to know and the generous spirit that is synonymous with the United States.

In permitting these exchange opportunities to continue to do their good work, our country has availed itself of the least expensive and most important international public relations opportunity available at this time. When considering the enormous debt currently facing our nation, it behooves us to recall that the cost to the government for supporting international exchange represents a mere fraction –  0.0001 percent to be precise –  of the total U.S. federal budget today, while the U.S. defense budget hovers at over $700 billion per year. Even more significant, it is calculated that international exchange participants and their dependents contributed more than $20 billion to the U.S. economy last year.

Despite the undeniably positive impact of cultural exchange on our nation’s prospects for peace and fortified relations with nations abroad, not everyone in Washington currently supports the value of international exchange programs.  Historically, cultural exchange has received robust bi-partisan support, being viewed as one of the most important and efficient ways to promote national security and economic viability through cross-cultural understanding.  Unfortunately, some members of Congress have been misinformed by interest groups and headline-seeking journalists that exchange programs are a peril to students, a burden on our federal budget and a threat to national security. These misguided, and increasingly visceral, attacks threaten the future of the most important public diplomacy tool available to America today.

Considering the threat international exchanges face in Washington, five former Secretaries of State called on members of Congress to support “a strong and effective International Affairs Budget” in a letter published by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC).  In the letter, former Secretaries Madeleine K. Albright, Henry A. Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, Colin L. Powell, and George P. Shultz expressed their belief that “[exchange programs] are critical to America’s global leadership and represent strategic investments in our nation’s security and prosperity.” The Secretaries went on to conclude, “Now is not the time for America to retreat from the world.”

As we prepare to ring in the New Year, I want to extend appreciation to all of you who have taken time to participate in and facilitate cultural exchange; you serve as indispensible citizen diplomats for your country.  In 2012, we must continue to educate Congress on the importance of exchange programs by promoting cross-cultural understanding in our communities at home and abroad. In so doing, we will be significant contributors to making the world a more equitable, just and peaceful place. Good will to cultural exchange and peace on Earth!