U.S. needs to pump up its diplomatic muscles

By DONALD EASTMAN, Eckerd College President
Published November 17, 2007

In a recent essay in the Atlantic, John Updike succinctly itemizes "the challenges ahead" for America: "A fury against liberal civilization by the world's poor, who have nothing to lose; a ruinous further depletion of the world's natural assets; a global warming that will change world climate and with it world geopolitics. The American idea, promulgated in a land of plenty, must prepare to sustain itself in a world of scarcity."

Updike's list is as on target as it is daunting. Those of us with responsibilities for educating the next generation of citizens and leaders understand that Updike accurately summarizes what we face in the world ahead: Our problem is how to prepare our nation to take on these challenges effectively and successfully. Two facts are incontrovertible: If these challenges are to be met and mastered, the United States is the only country capable of leading the way, and, if the United States is to do so, its institutions of higher education - directly and indirectly - must play a critical, indeed an indispensable, role. We must:

- develop "global literacy" by offering vibrant study-abroad programs that are required for graduation and supporting and strengthening such key efforts as the Fulbright program;

- attract and integrate increasing numbers of foreign students into our programs;

- ensure that core curricula include courses in the history, economy and politics of the United States and in the fundamental principles of international relations and diplomacy;

- provide strong adult education opportunities, both degree and nondegree oriented, in these same vital areas of education for citizenship;

- offer and support a broad array of foreign language study at all levels of education, particularly in areas of strategic importance: Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hindi, Farsi and Korean;

- offer study of geographical areas of strategic importance, such as Asia and the Middle East;

- and finally, as has been emphasized in countless national studies and reports, the United States must prepare more American scientists, engineers and mathematically skilled graduates if it is to maintain its security and standard of living.

During my lifetime, three national programs - other than warfare - have galvanized the nation's will and resources for great achievement: the Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan and the program to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. The United States needs another such sweeping program, one that is focused on preparing young people for global diplomatic leadership. This is not a task that comes naturally to us. Our geographic and linguistic isolation from other countries and cultures has often restricted our national interest in and hindered our understanding of diplomatic approaches to conflict. But our difficulties in the Middle East since 9/11 have once again underscored the unpredictability and painful costs of military solutions to complicated social conflicts. Colleges and universities, education foundations and the federal government should tap the public's heightened awareness of the inefficiencies (if not ineffectiveness) of military solutions to global challenges to develop public support for a national program of global literacy and diplomatic understanding - a new Marshall Plan for global literacy.

It is past time to supplement our national focus on military strength with a national priority on developing diplomatic strength. It is not simply our global leadership that is at stake, but the very survival of our culture.

Donald Eastman is the president of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.