Skip to main content

50th Anniversary Celebration of the U.S.-Japan Fulbright Exchange

Charles Hotel, Cambridge, Massachusetts

It is good to be here to celebrate something that I think is truly important. Truly important to the Fulbright program, truly important to the relationship between the United States and Japan, truly important to what higher education can do to promote understanding in our interactions. Mrs. Fulbright, it was a thrill to hear you speak. During the 1960s your husband spoke out and argued vigorously on the international issues of his day — he encouraged vigorous debate on crucial issues facing the nation, something that is absolutely essential.

Let me begin by telling you about something I’ve been reading about lately. Reflecting on the job I have, I have been trying to learn something about the history of higher education, and get a sense of different people’s views about higher education and universities. It turned out that higher education was a subject of passionate interest to George Washington. George Washington wanted to devote several paragraphs of his farewell address to the nation, when he left the presidency, to a proposal for a national university. Alexander Hamilton, who was drafting the address for him, wouldn’t let him do it, because he thought a proposal so specific was not the kind of thing that was suitable to a farewell address. So what he did instead was have a couple of sentences about education in the farewell address.

However, George Washington didn’t let Alexander Hamilton get involved in writing his will, and so he expressed his views on the subject very fully in his will, and indeed bequeathed a substantial part of his resources for the establishment of a national university if one were ever to be established. And it’s interesting to think about what George Washington got right, and what George Washington got wrong.

He basically said three things when making the case for a national university. First, he said that what was hugely important about a national university is that it would help to establish, cement, and develop the values and ideas of the American republic and the American nation and would support American commerce, American industry, and the American conception of life. Something very similar was said by Thomas Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia. I’d say he got that one exactly right.

The second thing he said, and he used words that could be used today, was that it was enormously important to bring together people from every part of the country, from every different background, so that they could come together in mutual understanding, and through their mutual understanding develop the bonds of friendship that are the kind that you can only strike at a young age, and that prove to be so powerful throughout the rest of one’s life. And that a national university would foster the nascent American republic’s tremendous sense of community. And that seems to me to be exactly right and carries very powerful values that speak to us on issues of foreign study, that speak to us on issues of diversity today.

There was one other argument — perhaps slightly less effective than the other two — that he used in his will to promote the creation of a national university. George Washington believed if we didn’t have national universities, our students would be forced to study abroad. And by studying abroad they would pick up all kinds of crazy anti-republican ideas and it would undermine and call into question the values of the Republic. Because of this we needed to have first-rate higher education right here in the United States. I’d say to have two out of three of your ideas stand very powerfully 200years later is something that is very significant.

Let me give you an example, drawing on my area of economic politics, of how this matters. When I was a young professor in 1985, 30 years old, I was invited to spend close to a month visiting an institute for scholarship in the Japanese Ministry of Finance. I had a chance to meet with a range of economists there, economists working in the central bank in Japan, to travel around Japan, to meet many economists in the private sector. There is no question that as a result of that experience, I had a much greater, keener understanding of the Japanese economy and Japanese economic issues. It served me extraordinarily well when I had a chance to serve the U.S. government working on U.S.-Japanese economic policy issues.

I certainly made many mistakes, and there is much that I wish I understood that I did not, but I understood much more than I would have without that exchange experience. The quality of economic discussions in both directions was enormously influenced by people who had true experience in both countries. Officials on the American side, and officials on the Japanese side, regarded Toyoo Gyohten as a figure who could bring wisdom and experience because of his long history of going back and forth between those countries.

Let me tell you, having spent 8 years engaged in various diplomatic activity, that having had the privilege of being translated by the best diplomatic translators in the world, there is a huge difference in the quality of the communication that is possible when both people are extraordinarily capable in one of the languages that is being spoken. One of the enormous benefits of the Fulbright program is to create that cadre — people with whom one can have terrific and sympathetic communication. I say with some regret and mild embarrassment that it’s my observation that where that communication takes place so effectively it is too frequently because the English language is learned by foreigners, and too infrequently because Americans have learned other languages.

John Kennedy in the early ’60s spent 45 minutes a day trying to learn French because he felt that would enable him to communicate with DeGaulle in a different kind of way. I don’t know if that particular project worked out, but it was a laudable impulse, and it was an impulse that too few Americans experience.

Let me say another thing about the context, the larger view of America’s national interest, and I’ll conclude by bringing this back to Harvard and higher education. I’ve become convinced, and I thought this before September 11, that the greatest threat to American national security is the neglect of non-defense-related aspects in our relationship with the rest of the world.

We as a country, in the decade from the end of the Cold War to the period a year ago, reduced, after taking out the effects of inflation, our spending on our national defense by $100 billion. You can ask the question: how much of that money should have been redeployed into forward defense of our national interest through programs like the Fulbright program? Or through programs to support the development of democracies around the world, through programs of foreign financial assistance, through programs that foster global cooperation on issues ranging from building healthier securities markets, finding more efficient means of energy production, or through support for international organizations, the World Bank, United Nations, who represent collective approaches to advancing freedom and prosperity? You can debate whether the right level was to redeploy all of that $100 billion, or to redeploy half of that $100 billion, or to redeploy a quarter of that $100 billion. But I would suggest to you that it is almost impossible to make the case that it is rational to do what we did, which is to reinvest negative 8 percent of that $100 billion in our non-defense programs in support of our national interest.

Why is it? I don’t know exactly why it is we have turned away from policies of the Fulbright generation. I got some sense of what the answer is before I came here today when I was reading about the history of the Fulbright program and its passage. I would like to be able to tell you, because it would be a terrific story, that Sen. Fulbright stood on the floor of the Senate and gave a powerful speech advocating turning swords into plowshares and promotion of international understanding on the basis of which the other senators were seized with ideological passion to make America a leader in creating a better world.

That would be a great story, and I could have quoted from the speech today and that would really be fantastic. It would, however, bear absolutely no relation to reality. Because what actually happened is he went to somebody on the Appropriations Committee, wrote a few lines, got the guy to stick it in the bill, told nobody to talk about it, snuck it through the Conference Committee, got the president to sign it, and then it was in place and it was law, and had to be kept going. He was subsequently told by a number of other senators that they believed what I call the George Washington Argument 3, and that there is no way that they would have ever voted for that bill had they known what it was.

It’s much harder for wise people to make an end run and to sneak things by other people today than it used to be. As I have said before, nobody ever focus-grouped the Marshall Plan. If they had done focus groups on the Marshall Plan, it might not have done so well. And it is a real challenge for all of us to make this case for forward internationalism, as broadly as we can. And it has never been more important than now. Because now at the zenith of America’s power, we are at the greatest risk of taking the rest of the world for granted. We are at the greatest risk of not just trying to talk about values that are compelling, the values of our nation, but engaging in a kind of advocacy that can be seen as cultural imperialism by the rest of the world and can produce a very great backlash. There is no antidote to that for the United States that is as good as more Americans having really had the experience not of visiting foreign nations, but of living in foreign nations. That’s what the Fulbright Program is all about.

These are important issues for us at Harvard. I think one of Harvard’s great challenges in the years ahead is to continue to build on, extend, our contribution to global vision. We can do that in many ways. By continuing to increase the number of foreign students who have the opportunity to study here at Harvard. We now have a policy for our undergraduates for the first time, and few other major American universities have this policy, of extending need-blind financial aid around the world, not just to the United States. We are still increasing the fraction of students who come to different Harvard programs, who come from abroad. We are drawing on what Harvard is fortunate to have a convening power that reflects the fact that because of our history, people want to come.

It was a thrill for me to welcome in the last few weeks the president of Pakistan, the prime minister of Serbia, and particularly exciting, Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan to the Harvard campus. But I would say, to use the language of my field, Harvard has traditionally been much stronger in the import area of international exchange, and much less in the export area of international exchange. That’s way we made it a priority in the last year or two to enable many more students to study abroad.

Frankly, I was very disturbed to learn when I became president of this university that in terms of the fractions of undergraduates who have study-abroad experience, the only major universities in America that lagged behind Harvard were West Point and Annapolis. That suggested to me a need for a change in the attitudes on the part of our students and a change on the part of some of our faculty. You know something? The best place to learn how to speak Japanese is in Japan. The best place to come to an understanding of South Asian culture is actually not in a lecture course here, outstanding as our lectures are in South Asian culture, it is actually in South Asia. Through our curriculum requirement policies, through our financial aid policies, through the generosity of some of our wonderful friends and support for graduate student fellowships for dissertation research, increasingly through increased support for undergraduate research opportunities abroad, we are making enormous progress in this regard, but there is much to do.

One of the great things about being president of the university is that you get to hear about initiatives people are taking that are truly wonderful. I just had occasion to hear about a freshman seminar, a historically oriented freshman seminar in which all of the students are going to spend a week in Kyoto with the professor teaching the seminar, studying various aspects of Japanese culture. Freshman seminar, a week in Kyoto. That is a very good thing I think, and what ideally I look forward to is when a story like that isn’t a remarkable story at Harvard, but commonplace. Because then, we will be doing everything we can to promote international understanding; that is the most important thing for all of our futures and our children’s future. It represents the fulfillment of the remarkable Fulbright program that we celebrate today. Thank you.