Cultural diplomacy – the attempt by a government to win the hearts and minds of foreign nationals – has a long tradition in the history of the world. Akin to an early form of globalization, cultural diplomacy served as a tool of statecraft for ancient civilizations of the Middle East and Mediterranean. Through exchanging ideas, technology and individuals these societies built relations that enabled them to develop and evolve their agriculture, artistry, trade, and diplomacy. Ancient Egypt had the custom of bringing young aristocrats from conquered enemies to Egypt, where they were immersed in Egyptian society and returned to their home with favorable views of the Pharaoh.
Alexander the Great realized that he could not sustain his empire through military might alone. With this vision he built the great Library of Alexandria in Egypt, the largest in the world at the time and a site of scholarly exchanges. The library was built upon Greek culture and learning, and facilitated the spread of Greco philosophy. Greek cities were famously employed poets and philosophers to go abroad as ambassadors.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries offered the first example of modern state efforts to promote culture and education beyond borders. France, because of the Jesuits, exported high quality education to North America, China, and India. The Jesuits’ educational expertise was deployed in tandem with France’s colonization, diplomatic, military, and trade efforts.
Through their international education exchanges, Jesuits gained access to highly guarded cultural sites. Mateo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit, was the first Westerner allowed into China’s Forbidden City. He invited to be an advisor to the Imperial Court, and was given this honor due to his contributions to Chinese academia with his conversion of European scientific texts into Chinese. For Ricci, as well as for students today, the importance of academic exchange cannot be overstated.
Like the French, America’s first source of cultural diplomacy was rooted in religion. During the nineteenth century the American Christian missionary movement sought to spread the gospel abroad. This involved imparting Western knowledge with an emphasis on self- reliance at many schools and universities abroad. They founded some of the first universities modeled after the American higher education system abroad: Robert College in Constantinople in 1863, the Syrian Protestant College in 1866, and Peking University in 1989. Peking University (Beijing Daxue 北京大学) is generally regarded as the Harvard (or Oxford) of China.
Many Christian missionaries sponsored converts to obtain higher education in America. One notable example was Yung Wing, the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university. Wing returned to China after graduating from Yale and convinced the Chinese government to send 120 young Chinese men to the U.S. for undergraduate studies.
As international exchange gained traction in America, the international peace movement of the early 1900’s promoted the ideal that mutual understanding could be achieved through educational travel. Under this worldview, foreign education played an integral part in ending all wars. Students and lecturers would serve as ambassadors and return home with a deeper understanding other nations.
In this context, Andrew Carnegie created his namesake Endowment for International Peace with a $10 million donation in 1910. His vision was to “hasten the abolition of international war, the foulest blot upon our civilization”. One of the main pillars of the foundation was the Division of Intercourse and Education, which sought to promote international understanding and cooperation.
World War I hampered Carnegie’s efforts to end all wars. However, the war brought about American government involvement in cultural activities abroad. President Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information (CPI) in 1917 to build support for the U.S. to enter and participate in the war. The CPI is noted for its work in Europe and South America. It coordinated with US Embassies to open reading rooms for US-based journalism; it also organized speaking tours for Americans. Through the Fulbright program these activities continue today.
After World War I the Institute of International Education (IIE) was founded to promote greater understanding between nations and foster lasting peace through international education exchanges. During the 1920s IIE organized student, faculty and teacher exchanges between Americans and Europeans. Stephen Duggan, IIE’s president at the time, persuaded the U.S. government to create a new category of nonimmigrant student visas, bypassing post-war quotas set by the Immigration Act of 1921. By the mid 1920s IIE was administering international fellowships on behalf of the American, Czechoslovak, French, German, and Hungarian governments. Duggan put forth proposals to bring foreign students to the U.S. as a form of foreign aid and a way to promote long-term relations between countries. He asserted, “If ever there were a time when America’s aid was necessary to help sustain higher education in Europe, and in the interest of reconstruction and of the intellectual life, to bring selected students to this country, it is now.” These efforts prompted the State Department to organize a meeting on the topic of educational exchanges in 1936, which ultimately gave birth to US government cultural diplomacy.
With the 1941 entrance of the U.S. into World War II, the State Department moved most cultural diplomacy efforts into the private sector. IIE was granted responsibility to manage the US-sponsored student exchange programs in Latin America. In 1944 the Secretary of State created a new position, the Assistant Secretary for Public and Cultural Affairs. This position marked a monumental shift in government policy towards cultural exchanges, as the government began to embrace these programs more fully.
The end of the war, international educational exchange had become a priority of the U.S. government. The Fulbright Program, America’s premier cultural diplomacy program, owes its creation to the efforts of Senator William Fulbright. He is “responsible for the largest and most significant movement of scholars across the earth since the fall of Constantinople in 1453.”
The Fulbright is America’s premier international fellowship. In your application essay, you need to include discuss why your research furthers the Fulbright program’s goals of fostering international communication and cultural learning. To better understand the program’s goals, it is useful to know the history of the Fulbright program and educational exchange as a whole.
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