On May 1, after more than a decade, the search for Osama bin Laden came to an end. It took patience and perseverance. And it took not only military prowess, but also intelligence that depended on a solid understanding of that region of the world and capabilities in a number of foreign languages that are not widely known in the United States. Our years of work in diplomacy and national security have made very clear to both of us the critical need to maintain and expand the cadre of Americans who have studied the history and politics of countries who affect our well-being. Specifically, the United States’ ability to both confront challenges and exploit opportunities relies heavily on Americans being able to understand and speak less commonly taught languages. Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Pashto, Farsi and Swahili are of obvious importance to addressing prominent challenges facing us today, but the need is not limited to those.

We believe that a grievous last-minute mistake was made when funding for International Education and Foreign Language Studies was cut for this fiscal year. In the context of billions and even trillions of cuts being discussed, a $50 million reduction sounds insignificant. But this particular $50 million cut from the Department of Education’s budget amounted to a 40% reduction in the relatively small account that supports these programs at higher education institutions across the U.S. This is a dramatic cut that will have long-lasting and serious consequences – it not only threatens the nation’s diplomatic, intelligence, and national security capacities, but also our ability to maximize our competitiveness in global markets. This cut was a last-minute decision made with the specter of a government shutdown hanging over it.

Troubling shortfalls

This cut is one that our national interests demand be reversed before the damage is too great. Future budget decisions regarding international education efforts need to be made in light of the documented shortages of language-proficient workers that hinder the work of critical federal agencies.

In 2002, the Government Accountability Office (at the time, known as the General Accounting Office), reviewed the use of foreign language skills at the U.S. Army, the State Department, the Foreign Commercial Service of the Department of Commerce, and the FBI, and reported significant and troubling shortfalls, many of them “in hard-to-learn languages from the Middle East and Asia.”

The report noted that “agency officials stated that these shortfalls have adversely affected agency operations and hindered U.S. military, law enforcement, intelligence, counterterrorism and diplomatic efforts.” The report also cited diplomatic and intelligence officials’ specific comments about the shortages having “weakened the fight against international terrorism and drug trafficking.”

While federal agencies are indeed working to meet their language needs, they are chasing a moving target as regions posing threats evolve, as do areas of opportunity. Furthermore, the 2002 GAO report’s point that technology advances “allow the collection of growing amounts of information” is an even greater factor today.

A threat to the system

The modest funding for International Education and Foreign Language Studies is vital to maintaining and enhancing our critical workforce needs. The institutional capacity on university campuses across the nation that exists today has taken decades to build and would be impossible to easily recapture once these programs are slashed. These cuts threaten that capacity.

Former students in programs supported by this funding have gone on to distinguished careers in the U.S. military, in various intelligence agencies, and in our diplomatic corps. Among those whose educations have benefited from these programs are former secretary of Defense Robert Gates, James Collins, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, and former representative David Obey. Others are defense attaches in U.S. embassies around the world, national intelligence officers and leaders in international organizations and NGOs, as well as private sector companies representing the United States abroad.

Today, only 5% of post-secondary students in the U.S. who are studying foreign languages are enrolled in courses on non-European languages despite the fact that 85% of the world’s population speaks those other languages.

When 18- to 24-year-olds were surveyed by National Geographic five years ago, the magazine documented an abysmal grasp of basic world geography. In order to work effectively with the world’s fastest-growing economies, as well as the countries with the highest populations of young people and those that present the greatest security challenges to the U.S. today, we must ensure that we expand the numbers of Americans who understand these regions and speak their languages.

As President Dwight Eisenhower said when he signed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, this initiative “will do much to strengthen our American system of education so that it can meet the broad and increasing demands imposed upon it by the considerations of basic national security.”

What was true during the Cold War is more critical in today’s global society, and demands that we restore funding to our international education programs.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is an Honorary Director of the Atlantic Council and former Senator Chuck Hagel is currently Chairman of the Atlantic Council. Both are professors at Georgetown University. This piece originally appeared in USA Today.

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