By Charles E. Morrison
(Note: This commentary first appeared in The Honolulu Advertiser on July 31, 2011.)
The East-West Center is a Hawai‘i-based, federally-supported institution, long a key part of U.S. outreach to the countries of the Asia and the Pacific and a fixture in Honolulu.
When a House committee recently voted to eliminate the 1960 authorizing legislation for the Center, friends and alumni were alarmed, even though few observers believe the bill has any likelihood of becoming law.
An Indian journalist, an alumnus of the Center’s leadership program, wrote to protest diminishing “the premier U.S. institution that has made a lasting imprint on the Asia-Pacific region promoting U.S. values.” For the alumni, the educational experience they received and the personal networks they developed through the Center’s student scholarships, research opportunities, and professional development programs are the most important accomplishments of the Center.
At the same time, the Center has won friends for the United States (and Hawai‘i) around the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region. Working with hundreds of smaller colleges and high schools in the United States, it prepares our country for a future in which Asia and the Pacific will be even more important.
The East-West Center is a public diplomacy institution that works. There are several keys to this:
First, established as a public corporation close to but outside the government, it has a flexibility, informality, and credibility that government programs usually do not have.
Second, our research, exchange, and educational activities are group-oriented and directed toward focused learning and problem solving. The Center was established as a place for people of the region to study and work collaboratively together on issues of mutual concern. Several months ago, Republican freshman Congressman Kevin Yoder, an alumnus of the Center’s New Generation Seminar for younger leaders, told me that compared to other exchanges he had participated in, the East-West Center’s was the most valuable because of its rich mixture of nationalities and spirit of give and take.
Third, the Center’s headquarters and main interactions are on American soil so that American democratic institutions and values, including personal freedom and community service, are on display not just within the institution, but in the surrounding society. Hawai‘i, as a multi-cultural, democratic community is a living, attractive model of an effective Asia-Pacific community for our participants.
As a national program, the Center is steadfastly nonpartisan and has been supported by Democratic and Republican administrations. In Hawai‘i, governors of both parties and their appointees on the EWC Board have been strong advocates of the Center, as have all the members of our Congressional delegation. Over the history of the institution, there has been no stronger and stauncher supporter than Senator Daniel K. Inouye, who understands its value for the nation and state.
In an era of constrained resources, the Center is a model for stretching taxpayer dollars. It receives significantly less federal money today than it did 20 years ago. Nonetheless, student and participant numbers have doubled. In the case of most government programs, $21 million in expenditures results in $21 million for public services. The Center, however, leverages government funding to add 40 percent more in value from other sources, not counting the spending of partner organizations.
To put the funding into perspective, the cost of building one new nuclear-powered submarine would keep the East-West Center running for 125 years.
The State of Hawai‘i makes no appropriation to the Center, but there are benefits for the state beyond the federal, foundation, and foreign dollars the Center attracts here. The institution enriches the community’s intellectual and cultural life, and works closely with the university system to add to Hawai‘i’s image as a regional educational and research hub. Institutions from the Polynesian Voyaging Society to the Hawai‘i International Film Festival have been incubated at the Center, and it played a significant role in attracting and supporting the coming APEC meeting.
The Center certainly expects to share in the budget-cutting needed in Washington. But we believe the Congress will continue to recognize and invest in the effective, unique and valuable asset the United States has in the East-West Center.
Dr. Charles E. Morrison is President of the East-West Center.