Thank you so much for the invitation to speak to you today. For those of you who have just arrived from neighboring countries, welcome to India. I also welcome Sue Borja, Branch Chief for the South and Central Asia Fulbright Program from the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, who joins us from Washington. I would like to thank Adam Grotsky and his team from the U.S.-Indian Educational Foundation for putting together this exciting three-day program. The topics you are covering through your work, ranging from environmental studies and public health to gender studies and economic empowerment, are among our top priorities here in India, and sound so interesting I wish I could go to all of these sessions.
And it’s great to be here in Jaipur.
Jaipur is an excellent and most appropriate location for this year’s Conference. From the birth of the city in the early 18th century to this day, Jaipur has always been a major cultural and intellectual center. Jai Singh, the founder of the city, was an admirer and enthusiastic supporter of mathematics, science and culture. He drew his inspiration for laying out the city from literature on astronomy, including books based on the teachings of Euclid and Ptolemy. It is famous today for hosting the world’s largest free literary festival, the Jaipur Literature Festival, which every January attracts book lovers and top writers from around the world to the “pink city.” It is also the home to some of the country’s finest universities.
Although its history is not as long as that of Jaipur, the Fulbright program also has an illustrious past. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford while in his 20s, J. William Fulbright was profoundly influenced by the value and potential of international educational exchanges. Later, in 1944, during a visit to war-devastated London, Fulbright became firmly committed to the importance of rebuilding Europe’s educational and intellectual might following the war. In September 1945, then a freshman senator from Arkansas, Fulbright called on Congress to use the proceeds from the sales of surplus war property to fund the “promotion of international goodwill through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.” A year later, the bill was signed into law as the Fulbright Act.
But knowing those funds would rapidly dry up, Fulbright dedicated himself to the unenviable task of convincing the U.S. Congress to fund the program. Knowing Congress was increasingly obsessed with the threat from the Soviet Union, he argued that cultural and educational exchanges could play just as important, if not a more important, role as promoting American “soft power” and mutual understanding in the post war world.
He also persuaded fellow legislators that negative perceptions of America could be set straight through exchanges and human examples that revealed the true spirit of American society. Fulbright himself was more concerned about the lack of information about foreign affairs among ordinary Americans. Thanks for his efforts over the last 70 years, more than 325,000 scholars, students, researchers, teachers, administrators and mid-career professionals from 155 countries have had the opportunity to take part in this prestigious exchange program.
The list of prominent alumni of the program serves to illustrate the power of people-to-people diplomacy and educational exchanges. From the late UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali to former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, Fulbright alumni have played key roles in international affairs, promoting a world order that seeks peaceful resolutions to disagreements among nations while upholding universal principles of human rights. As Fulbright scholars, they had the opportunity to travel abroad and immerse themselves in a foreign culture, an experience that shapes their own global perspectives.
Among the better known Fulbright alumni is India’s former Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, who studied law at George Washington University and credits the Fulbright experience with launching his public service career. The 2006 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Bangladesh’s Muhammed Yunus, went on a Fulbright program to study economics at the University of Colorado and then Vanderbilt University in the mid-1960s. He then went on to found the Grameen Bank, a pioneering effort to use microfinance to empower economically disadvantaged communities. In his words, “Fulbright provided me with the bridge to cross. I saw how things can be done differently in a different society. I learned lessons which stood me in good stead when building up the Grameen Bank.” The Fulbright truly is the flagship exchange program of the United States that promotes our people-to-people ties with the rest of the world, and serves as the foundation of our diplomatic engagements with countries around the world.
Throughout the world, the Fulbright program attracts great minds and then presents them with opportunities to see issues, cultures and societies through a different lens. Like Muhammed Yunus, thousands of students, scholars, researchers and teachers from across the region have had their horizons widened, their perspectives enriched and their minds turned upside down through interactions with their counterparts around the world. Creativity and innovation find fertile soil in environments where diversity of experience, expertise and perspectives are the norm and where there are ample opportunities to share that diversity both formally and informally. Although virtual and digital communications can play a role in supporting collaboration, they can’t replace the power and potential of the face-to-face interactions that Fulbright makes possible.
One of the greatest features of the Fulbright program is its reciprocity. The exchange of expertise and experience flows two ways. A large number of famous Americans have had the Fulbright experience, ranging from John Steinbeck to Milton Friedman. George Akerlof, who, after his time at the Indian Institute of Statistics in New Delhi, won the Nobel Prize for economics with another Fulbright alumnus, Joseph Stiglitz. Both Stiglitz and Akerlof attribute some of their inspiration to think outside the traditional confines of their disciplines while coming up with novel approaches and models to their Fulbright experiences. Akerlof has said, “Just as traditional French cooking does not use seaweed or raw fish, so neoclassical models of economics do not make assumptions derived from psychology, anthropology, or sociology. I disagree with any rules that limit the nature of the ingredients in economic models.” Such an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to social challenges is nurtured by the international educational experiences shared by participants in the Fulbright program.
Why is Fulbright so important to this region today? What role does Fulbright play in building our relations with countries across South and Central Asia? How does Fulbright contribute to our efforts to support dynamic, mutually beneficial political, economic and security ties?Prime Minister Modi is fond of saying – and we are fond of quoting him saying – “our shared efforts will benefit our own people, our partnership aspires to be larger than merely the sum of its parts. As nations, as people, we aspire to a better future for all; one in which our strategic partnership also produces benefits for the world at large.”
Many of the topics you are exploring here in India are directly related to our mission’s top priorities. Research into intellectual property rights and the role of patent attorneys in India will help inform our efforts in increasing U.S.-India trade and investment, a key priority in our bi-lateral relationship with India. Projects investigating gender equity and sustainable agriculture, or the relationship between gender, public space and safety, will help realize the enormous potential of women in this country. Projects on solar microgrids in remote communities and water conservation address climate and environmental priorities that I view as one of the most important pathways for future collaboration between the U.S. and India. Projects in fields like tuberculosis diagnosis advance our interests in public health… and the list goes on.But the research need not be directly relevant to the United States’ Government’s articulated priorities to be of the utmost value.
The work Americans do across the region is part of the foundation of our complex, multifaceted relationship with India. The relationships you build today may evolve and grow and lead to unexpected but equally interesting outcomes. The people you touch today will be in some way affected and influenced by your work. Although the outcomes of educational exchanges like Fulbright might not always be immediately measurable, over time, their impact becomes clear and the value of the program proven again.
Herein rests one of the reasons why bilateral educational and cultural exchanges like Fulbright remain such an important part of our efforts. Many government agencies, from USAID to the Department of Defense offer training programs in their areas of expertise. Similarly, many of our information programs help us explain U.S. policies, priorities and approaches in the region. However, bilateral exchanges like Fulbright, take a more holistic, multi-dimensional and long-term tact in advancing our relationships. The two-way nature of the program, the importance placed on sharing, cooperating and collaborating, the recognition that the impact of an exchange might not be immediately evident but may be ultimately profound and the understanding that there’s far more to people than their areas of expertise and more to America than its policies makes educational and cultural exchange programs like Fulbright vital to our relationships with other societies and nations.
In conclusion, I would like to congratulate you all for the wonderful work you are doing here in South and Central Asia. Your work is important to us and will be paying out dividends for years to come with the individuals, institutions, and communities that you touch both in the region and back in the U.S. Thank you.