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Whose Bread I Eat, His Song I Sing: An International Education Nonprofit and a Devil’s Bargain

2019 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Institute of International Education (IIE), a well-known US-based private nonprofit that focuses on international student exchange and aid, foreign affairs, and international peace and security. IIE refers to itself as “a world leader in the international exchange of people and ideas.”

While IIE has numerous achievements to its credit, there are also many missed opportunities and built-in constraints that are the result of its status as a quasi-US governmental organization. The organization describes itself as “an independent, nonprofit” but the former adjective is in name only.

At the February 2019 IIE Summit, which included the Centennial celebration, one of the rather large elephants in the room was Donald Trump, who really doesn’t care about international students, at best.  Naturally, no one at IIE can say that because one of the golden rules in the NGO world is don’t bite the hand that feeds you.  Since IIE received 78.2% of its 2017 revenue from “government grants,” silence, at best, or muted criticism, at worst, is de rigueur.

Close official ties and overreliance on one source of funding limit what IIE can say and do. Think of it as internal self-censorship that results from having one hand tied behind its institutional back.

While this nonprofit is private, its outlook is necessarily US-centric. Its long-time slogan, Opening Minds to the World, belies a harsh institutional reality also focused on selectively keeping minds closed by avoiding discussion of certain hot button issues that may raise the ire of its primary benefactor in D.C. As a former insider, I have firsthand experience with the origins and impact of this paranoid, “circle the red, white, and blue wagons” mindset.

What About Nationalism?

In the US, at least, nationalism is often confused with patriotism. The former is defined as loyalty and devotion to a nation with this nasty add-on: a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.

There is truth to the quote from Stephen Duggan, IIE’s co-founder and first president, that “irrational nationalism was the cause of war,” then, i.e., World War I, and now, which raises the question: when and to extent in its 100-year history has IIE attempted to substantively and systematically address the issue of US nationalism and what to do about it? It is, after all, an albatross around the neck of a nation facing seemingly insurmountable problems.

Many US colleagues, including those at well-known establishment organizations like IIE, are like fish who are unaware they are swimming in water. On the other hand, there is awareness at the highest levels, both conscious and subconscious, that nationalism, the dominant mindset in the US for more than a century, is something that is not spoken of in polite company, to paraphrase George Orwell.

In the draft preface to the first edition of Animal Farm Orwell wrote about the silencing of unpopular ideas, the suppression of inconvenient facts without the need for an official ban, and the “prevailing orthodoxy,” which I described in a 2016 article entitled US nationalism – The elephant in the room:

US nationalism is such an orthodoxy, falsely understood and mislabelled by many US Americans as patriotism. To speak of it is to be perceived as an outsider, an outlier, the other. To draw attention to it in ‘polite company’, that is, even among self-proclaimed intellectuals, is to risk being branded un-American, an opponent or even a traitor.

Censorship for a Cause

One vivid memory from my final months at IIE was of sitting with its president and CEO and its chief operating officer in their ninth floor offices, looking out over the United Nations headquarters across the street, arguing over words, phrases, and names in a page proof chapter entitled Developing Globally Competent Citizens: The contrasting cases of the United States and Vietnam, which I had written with a Vietnamese colleague, Dương Thị Hoàng Oanh. (Later that year, our contribution appeared in The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence, edited by Darla K Deardorff. The chapter has been widely cited.)

After an hour’s worth of back-and-forth, I walked away with a minor victory, i.e., a basically intact chapter that was only mildly censored. Tellingly, one of the items I was asked to delete was an introductory quote from Rosa Luxemburg about false consciousness and ideology (Those who do not move, do not notice their chains), which I first saw spray painted on a wall during my initial study abroad experience in Germany, ironically. Another one was a reference to the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neoconservative organization best known for formulating the blueprint for the disastrous foreign policy of the Bush/Cheney administration, and a textbook political manifestation of US nationalism.

I was asked to delete the quote because Luxemburg was a Marxist (a Polish Marxist, theorist, philosopher, economist, anti-war activist and revolutionary socialist who became a naturalized German citizen and was assassinated in 1919 at the age of 47 in Berlin because of her beliefs and actions, to be exact). The recommended deletion of a reference to PNAC was supposedly because “someone from the Project might go after me,” meaning might go after the organization.

Ironically, as I observed in the aforementioned article, it is the mindset of nationalism, in part, that has created the policy conditions in the US for the destabilization, invasion and occupation of a long and growing list of countries – by proxy or directly – including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.  That glaring fact was most likely lost on the powers that be, or was it? Perhaps free speech was simply viewed as a necessary casualty in the war for continued funding and fiscal stability. (That’s why it was crickets at IIE after the crime that was the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.) Eyes on the prize, truth and justice be damned.

A few years prior to that sobering experience, I had submitted two draft articles for pre-publication review, in accordance with IIE policy. One was a critique of the US invasion, occupation, and destruction of Iraq and the other an open letter to US veterans of the war in Vietnam, subsequently published by The Huffington Post. Both were slated to be published by a major regional US newspaper. I received a panicked call the following morning from the president and CEO asking me to assure him by “close of business” that neither article would see the light of day. That was code for “obey or else”. I acquiesced because I knew that exercising my right to free speech would mean unemployment a year into the job.

What was the organization’s leadership so afraid of? God forbid someone from the US government would read the articles, link the author, whose professional affiliation would not have appeared in the credit, to his employer, and punish IIE by cutting its budget. Fear and paranoia led not only to censorship but to a two-article publication ban. As I have written about US nationalism and the reluctance to engage with it, Being silenced comes in many shapes and forms but the end result is always the same – important issues worth discussing remain invisible and cloaked in darkness except to a small circle of concerned individuals.

One of Life’s Many Perverse Ironies

Speaking of things that are not spoken of in polite company, why is it that one of the premier international education organizations in the US had Henry Kissinger, now a “life trustee,” on its board of trustees?

Knowing more than most of my fellow citizens about Kissinger’s direct involvement in the death and suffering of millions of people in Southeast Asia during the US war in Viet Nam, including the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, having personal ties to many of his victims, and knowing that he is probably responsible for more human misery than any other living former US government official, I viewed his appointment as a deal with the devil struck by IIE’s leadership.

In case you’re counting, it is estimated that US executive branch leaders, including Kissinger, have killed, wounded and made homeless over 20 million people in the last half century, mostly civilians, including 3.8 million in the US war in Viet Nam alone, of whom 2 million were civilians. (President Jimmy Carter’s recent characterization of the US as “the most warlike nation in the history of the world,” having been at peace for only 16 of its 243 years as a nation, is spot-on.)

Years ago, I remember chatting with a Vietnamese student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C., who excitedly told me he had met Henry Kissinger at a reception. He proudly showed me a picture of the two of them, smiling broadly, wine glasses in hand. Student and master teacher? More like victim and victimizer, I thought glumly. I wondered how much he knew about Kissinger’s involvement in the destruction of his country and region, not to mention US interventions in Angola, Argentina, Chile, and East Timor which, as the late Bill Blum noted it in Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, “brought unspeakable horror and misery to the peoples of those lands.”

Life is full of trade-offs, some of which involve fatally flawed moral compromises and hefty doses of personal and institutional soul-selling. It was Senator J. William Fulbright, an outspoken critic of the US war in Viet Nam that Henry Kissinger prosecuted with such hubris and zeal, who spoke out against the ignorance and arrogance of (US) power. It was Fulbright who once had this to say about President Lyndon Johnson: “I’m sure that President Johnson would never have pursued the war in Viet Nam if he’d ever had a Fulbright to Japan, or say Bangkok, or had any feeling for what these people are like and why they acted the way they did. He was completely ignorant.”

Henry Kissinger and IIE, an organization created in the aftermath of World War I to foster greater understanding between nations as a means of achieving “lasting peace” and the primary administrator of the US government’s flagship international exchange program that bears Senator Fulbright’s name: one of life’s many perverse ironies.

The Drawback of Being a US Government Surrogate

While international education in its myriad incarnations is an indispensable part of any educational system, it alone will not make the world a safer place. Organizations like IIE should be taking the lead in devising creative and effective ways to counteract and combat nationalism by embracing global citizenship education, which is fully compatible with patriotism.

As I wrote in 2016, unless we possess the courage to find ways of opening the minds of young US Americans, citizens of “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, true then as now, sadly, and of a country that the international community views as the greatest threat to world peace, we will continue to miss the forest for the trees.

IIE’s vision speaks of education transcending borders, opening minds, “enabling people to go beyond building connections to solving problems together” with the goal of creating “a peaceful, equitable world enriched by the international exchange of ideas and greater understanding between people and cultures.” Surely, this includes speaking truth to power, when the occasion demands, which it invariably does when power is being abused, and playing an active role in the all-important task of moving young US Americans on a path away from nationalism towards global citizenship – with or without national affiliation.

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Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived and worked in Vietnam since 2005.  He blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam

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